When he signed on as a gunslinger for the State Department a few years back, the young man said, he felt "idealistic" and pretty well prepared for a life in the perpetual half-light of a thousand hotel corridors, the frazzling of his home life and the implications of the .357 magnum he wears against his ribs.

But now, he and a number of his co-workers say they are being strained to the breaking point by over-long hours and are in danger of becoming the gang that cannot shoot straight.

They attribute this in part to a workload that has been inflated by the intensified threat of terrorism, which means more people need their protection and need it longer. But they also blame bureaucratic inertia and mismanagement at the State Department.

The agents are among those assigned to protect visiting dignitaries such as the Arab and Israeli peace negotiators currently head-quartered at the Madison Hotel and also the U.S. secretary of state and his family.

They paint a portrait of themselves as people who feel like transients in their own lives, suffering "the highest divorce rate in the foreign service," some struggling to hold families together and yet financially dependent on the very overtime that strains them. Some express fear that they have wandered into a professional cul de sac.

"What we're afraid of," the young man said, "is that nothing will be done about this situation until somebody tries to assassinate somebody. Agents who are working 20 hours a day cannot respond properly and somebody's going to go down, maybe a principal [dignitary], maybe an agent. I just don't want to be there when it happens."

State Department officials have acknowledged that the situation has jeopardized the health and safety of agents and the people they protect. The officials said they have begun to reduce the number of protective details and are now examining ways to improve the scheduling of agents to improve the situation.

However, a number of agents have voiced concern that their bosses expect the issue to blow over and that, despite a recent flurry of publicity, nothing will happen.

"I've fallen asleep on duty, had to be awakened by an elevator operator," the young agent said. Other agents, listening said they, too, had fallen asleep on duty and one said he dozed off once earlier this year during an active bomb threat. "We're supposed to qualify with our firearms every 90 days," said another. "Well, it's been nine months. I just haven't had the time." Others nodded in agreement.

Even when the workload eases, and he gets a full night's sleep, one said, "You find yourself getting dried out, mentally, emotionally, physically. You live in a dazed world."

"The worst part of it is the fear of the unknown," said another agent, a woman. "I have learned never to plan more than two hours in advance. If I didn't have a roommate, I'd have had my phone disconnected."

"When we're off, all we can think about is sleep," said another. "And drink. It's the only way you can unwind."

One agent who makes about $18,000 a year in base salary said he expects to make another $8,000 in overtime this year. For some it is lower, but for some it is much higher, he added. Some agents, those who are unmarried and unmortgaged, said they would gladly give up some overtime pay in exchange for some time off. "We've begged for it," one said. "We get killed in taxes and we don't have time to enjoy the money anyway."

They exchanged knowing glances and stories about airlines tickets canceled, tickets to Redskins games given away or shows at the Kennedy Center missed at the last minute, costing them money and disappointing friends or sposes.

"I have underwear in every major city in the United States," boasted one agent, as he described the ritual in which agents on the road get up an hour early and send out their dirty laundry, only to be told they are being sent immediately to another city.

They noted that, as State Department officials have confirmed, almost all the agents in the office recently "flunked" a stress test at a seminar conducted by a management consulting firm.

Some agents declined to discuss the matter. Those who did talk asked that they not be identified. They said they feared reprisals from above and damaged to their careers.

"A lot of us are looking for other jobs," said one agent. "I sent out 13 applications yesterday. But things are tight."

The agents' frustrations came to light recently in connection with a congressional inquiry into overtime pay practices in the federal agencies.

Figures supplied to congressional investigators showed that the State Department paid $1.3 million in overtime to 135 of its 144 special agents during the last fiscal year - an average of $10,000 each - and the figure in expected to rise to $1.3 million for the same number this year.

Some agents have been working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and quite a few worked at least 800 hours of overtime last year, officials said.

While much of the strain has been caused simply by a shortage of agents - the result to department hiring ceilings - some agents contend the problem goes deeper.

They make wistful comparisons between their own office and its more celebrated cousin, the Secret Service, which is a part of the Treasury Department.

Supervisors and managers at the Secret Service rise through the ranks and have a law enforcement orientation, said one. "They look out for each other," he said.

By contrast, anybody with a gun is "the antithesis of what the State Department stands for," he said. The managers of its security office tend to have a foreign service outlook and see the security office as merely a "stepping stone" to their things, he said.

They said that more coordinated and sensitive scheduling of individual assignments could ease their overtime load and also cut some costly duplications in travel. They also contend that some dignitaries who are under no known threat but require "babysitting" should be eliminated from their work-load.

John Thomas, assistant secretary for administration at the State Department, said the agents are "absolutely right" in many of their complaints and emphasized that he has already initiated steps to alleviate the problems. But, in addition to the continuing lack of man-power in the face of an increasing work-load, he said there is "a problem of communication, both up and down" in the department that needs to be looked into.

"I am looking for retribution, or heads [to roll]," he added. "I am looking only for constructive ways to improve the situation."