After months of debate and procrastination, 18-year-old Frank Lester finally summoned his courage early in December. He walked into the Army recruiter's office in Columbia and blurted out, "I'm ready to go."

Then the recruiter started calling him "Private Lester" and spoke as if his enlistment were a done deal. Lester, who works for a moving company, realized that maybe he wasn't so ready after all.

"I got real scared," he said. "It started to feel very real to me. It's either fight or flight, and I ran."

But as troops geared up to invade Iraq, Lester watched it all on television and thought, "I could have been fighting alongside them." By late January, he was back in the recruiter's office. With basic training now just a couple of weeks away, yesterday's extraordinary scenes from the fall of Baghdad only confirm for him that the Army is his "destiny."

Recruiters across the Washington area say war is sparking renewed interest in military service and inspiring young recruits such as Lester to enlist. But the constant images of combat are also scaring off others more likely to sign up in peacetime. The result, local recruiters said, is no noticeable surge or drop in the number of people who join -- only a difference in motive.

"Before, they came in looking for other options: a challenge, money for college," said Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Joseph S. Freeman, a recruiter based in Catonsville. "But now they're coming in out of patriotism."

In peacetime, especially when the economy is poor, many who sign up do so for the financial benefits, educational opportunities and job security, recruiters said. But the war has attracted a more gung-ho recruit who feels the military is a patriotic duty.

For some, though, the war cooled the ardor to serve.

"I wouldn't want to go right now," said William Kwarteng, 20, a business student at Howard Community College, who stopped by the Marines' table at a recent job fair there. "I'll wait till next year. . . . I'm not thinking about going to war. I just want money for college."

The war has also worried parents, many of whom now ask more frequently about the possibility of their children ending up on the front lines. Freeman doesn't sugarcoat his answer.

A mother whose son was considering joining the Marines asked recently whether "he would be put in harm's way. I said, 'If called upon, yes, ma'am, he will.' "

Staff Sgt. Nicole Brown, an Army recruiter in Columbia, said she makes sure applicants know that combat is always a possibility.

"Our primary mission is to defend the country," she said, "and they are very much aware of that."

Images of smiling soldiers pulling down statues, fighter planes streaking across the sky and Marines kicking down doors can be better than any recruiting pitch. And the services have not hesitated to use them.

Navy Petty Officer Timothy Walters, a recruiter in Glen Burnie who keeps a defused land mine he brought back from the Balkans on his desk, hands out sleek brochures of planes flown by Tom Cruise look-alikes.

Freeman tells potential recruits that they can become part of history.

"For the first time, all these young men and women have the opportunity to see the culmination of the Marine Corps training on television," he said. "Now you point to the television, and say, 'See, didn't I tell you?' "

In recent years, after some branches of the service fell short of their goals, recruiting has become much more sophisticated. The Navy increased its recruiters from about 3,500 in fiscal 1997 to 4,400 today. In 2001, one of its best recent recruiting years, the Army changed its slogan from "Be all you can be" to one that more clearly sells the service as the road to personal development: "An Army of One." And it recently developed a video game for its Web site.

Recruiters are also benefiting from a new federal law that gives them access to lists of high school juniors and seniors. Some recruiters use it to make calls "just like a salesman," Brown said.

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Shawn Potwin, whose recruiting territory includes five of Howard County's high schools, said he'll often just hang out in the cafeteria at lunch or tape his business card to the walls of the restrooms. He will even go to the prom, he said, "so they can see that we like to have fun, too." He's become such a fixture at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City that the drama teacher asked him to help with the school production of the Marine courtroom drama "A Few Good Men."

Jason Deinlein met Potwin at a recent job fair where recruiters were giving away T-shirts that said "Pain is weakness leaving the body" to anyone who could do 20 pull-ups. Deinlein, a student at Howard Community College, was intrigued and made an appointment for an interview.

But when he walked into the Marines' Columbia recruiting office Tuesday, he was tentative.

"I don't want to mislead you," he told Potwin, seated across from him. "I want to finish college first."

Then he watched a video called "Behind Enemy Lines," in which Marines jump from speeding boats and hunt their enemies through the jungle with face paint.

"Very cool," he said.

Potwin started talking about the benefits Deinlein would get, how he could join the reserve and still get his degree. He also told him that the Marines would give him experience and make him more than just an AWB. "That means average white boy," Potwin said.

And he said there were plenty of perks, mainly money: Money for college. Money to rent a limo, eat out in Little Italy, rent a hotel room on the water, which is how Potwin boasted he's going to spend his anniversary with his wife.

After an hour of talking about his new future, Deinlein seemed impressed. Potwin asked him to rate his chances of signing up. He gave it an 8.

A few hours later, though, he told his father, who was not happy about it at all. Then he started thinking about what he would tell his girlfriend.

"In some ways they are salesmen, and they want me to sign up right there," Deinlein said of the recruiters. "I'm not a fool. I want to get in there for money and career advancement. Serving my country is good and all, but that's not the only reason I'm doing it. I don't want to go in for all-out war."

Then yesterday, he learned about the fall of Baghdad, how soldiers had taken the city, all of which he said was "inspiring" and "encouraging."

And just like that, he was leaning back toward joining -- for the moment, anyway.

Enlistee Frank Lester at the Army recruiting office in Columbia. He feels the Army is his "destiny" and has a new haircut to show for it.

Petty Officer Timothy Walters, a Navy recruiter in Glen Burnie, talks to Elizabeth Galindo, 18, and her father, Navy Chief Petty Officer Pete Galindo.Army enlistee Frank Lester goes over paperwork with Sgt. Michael Porche at the recruiting office in Columbia.Elizabeth Galindo, a high school senior, said she is considering joining the Navy after college.