On the counter at Dede's Diner in Gaithersburg is a photograph of a young man in fatigues. He is grinning widely, his arm draped around his dog.

Last week, Air Force officials visited the small roadside restaurant and delivered an alarming message to the owner, Dierdre McMahan: Her son, 1st Lt. Thomas Clifford Bland Jr., the man in the snapshot, was missing in action in the Persian Gulf War.

Bland, 26, a pilot who goes by the name Cliff, is believed to be the first Montgomery County resident -- and one of the first from the area -- who is unaccounted for in the gulf fighting. To those who know Bland, his disappearance has given a face to the faraway events, reminding them in an immediate way of the costs of war.

Rodney Cubitt, a retiree who frequents the diner, said that when he thinks about the war now, he envisions not massive numbers of troops, but "that nice young kid" who used to help his mother at the restaurant.

Eric Runion, a sheriff's deputy, recalls high school wrestling matches with his old friend. The prayers of Jeff Laws, Bland's wrestling coach and science teacher, now have a specific urgency: "Please keep him safe and bring him home."

The military is releasing few details of what happened to Bland and his 13-member crew on Jan. 31. Relatives of Bland, who is single, are also abiding by Department of Defense guidelines that suggest limiting the release of information about missing or captured military personnel. Family members have declined to talk with reporters; a friend said they are devastated.

What is known is that Bland and his crew crashed during a combat mission at 7 a.m. Saudi Arabia time in southeast Kuwait. The cause of the crash has not been released, but officials said it occurred "over hostile territory."

Bland apparently was the pilot of the AC-130H gunship, which has side-firing cannons -- including a 105mm howitzer -- and is used in nighttime attacks on tanks and other ground targets. Before reporting to the gulf last fall, Bland and his crew were based at Hurlburt Field in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.; he has not lived in Montgomery County for several years.

It is difficult for those who remember Bland as a skinny, wisecracking teenager at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown to contemplate what has happened to him. "I don't like to think about those things," Laws said.

When Bland was in high school, he "was just a gangly, awkward kid who wanted to be a good athlete and wanted to be a success," Laws said. "He was a goof-off and a funny kid. He had a good sense of humor. He had this way of saying 'Riiiight,' when you'd be talking to him, almost sarcastic. I liked him. He was sharp. I don't think he realized how smart he was in high school."

Although Bland, who graduated in 1982, was on the school wrestling team for three years, he was not a natural athlete, Laws said. Over six feet tall, he weighed less than 140 pounds and got by on determination. But when Bland returned to the school for a visit last spring, a graduate of Texas A&M University and an Air Force pilot, he had changed noticeably. He looked like a football player, Laws said: big, strong and confident. He also was proud to be a pilot, an interest he had picked up from his parents and decided to pursue while participating in the ROTC program at college.

"When he left here, he was still the spindly kid. When he came back, he was a man," Laws said. "I kidded him about growing up."

At Dede's Diner yesterday, a bouquet of yellow flowers was placed beside the photograph of Bland and his dog, Reggie. Yellow ribbons and small American flags covered the front door. Cubitt considered the awful change in the mood at his favorite coffee-drinking spot and shook his head.

"Seems like every generation has to go through something like this," he said.