The dilemma facing that great national experiment called the "All-Volunteer Force" can be summarized in this small statistic from the Charleston recruiting district.

Two years ago, in the autumn of 1977, the Marine Corps signed up 173 young people from the hills and hollows and small towns surrounding Charleston. Today, fully a third of those enlistees are civilians again, discharged prematurely for reasons ranging from medical unfitness to "defecive" attitudes.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps fell 1,300 short of its recruiting quota last year. The shortage would have been worse if the corps had not decided to reduce its size by 10,000.

To understand the manpower squeeze and the pressures that produce recruiting scandals, it is best to start with the young people available to the military. Brig. Gen. Patrick McMillan, the Marine in charge of recruiting, puts it bluntly:

"The middle class has deserted the military."

That means recruiters mostly go after poor kids who see military service as a genuine opportunity. Some kids from the West Virginia mountains join to learn job skills, only to return home disillusioned. Some seek adventure and careers and find both. Some enlist to get out of a jam at home, only to end up in worse trouble in uniform. Others join out of old-fashioned patriotism and family tradition. Some cheat to get in. And some recruiters cheat to sign them up.

"When we talk about getting 75 percent high school grads among our recruits and take the middle class out," said McMillan, "what you're dealing with is the lower socioeconomic structure of the country. You're trying to draw the best quality out of that group.It's tough."

This is about that struggle and the young mountain kids from the class of '77 -- winners and losers.

"I can set a charge to blow this building away or shoot somebody at 500 yards," Randy Teel was saying. "But you can't use none of that stuff out here."

Teel graduated from Hoover High at 17, without a clear notion of what he would do with is life.

"I kind of liked high school, played football and wrestled," Teel said, sitting in a smoky one-room cafe alongside the Elk River. The first summer after graduation he found work with a builder.

"But when winter came, we got laid off," he recalled. "I figured this was just a sign of things to come because I had no training. I didn't know anything.

"I tried everywhere I could think of to get a job. I tried to get into the mines. Luckily for me, I never got into the mines.

"And I ain't going to work for no damn grocery store, or something like that. I did that once before. I can't do that. I'd rather build something.

"I had uncles in the Marine Corps -- officers. The Marine recruiter told me they'd train me in construction skills and stuff like that.

"I thought for somebody like me who's got no training, any training is better than nothing. I thought I'll just go in. I did it." Teel enlisted in the Marine reserve unit here for six months active duty followed by training weekends and two weeks in summer.

After boot camp at Parris Island, Teel went to combat engineering school at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"I like guns. I love firecrackers, stuff like that. So anytime you get a chance to play with some dynamite, I thought that was all right," he said.

"I thought I'd learned some construction skills at Camp Lejeune, which is a rat hole. I thought it would help me to get a job here."

But his Marine training did not impress employers. "They take you and train you anyway before they would let you loose with an explosion."

James Belcher and his buddy, David Ball, saw going in the service as a way out of trouble. But Belcher ended up in an Army prison on drug charges.

Belcher told their stories as we sat at the kitchen table in his coal-miner father's house in Newtown, W.Va., a hollow in the mountains outside Logan. His father watched television in the next room. Belcher's little brothers dropped in and out of the kitchen.

Belcher could speak for Ball, who is still on duty with the Marine Corps, because they are best friends. They lived together during high school in Red Jacket, the next community down the narrow road.

"We used to drive people nuts around here, drinking beer and smoking pot and racing cars over the mountains," Belcher said.

"Dave quit high school before he was 16 and moved in with a 23-year-old girl . . . He came back home, went to high school, on and off, until he went into the Marines . . . . From what I understand, he just went down to the high school and had a talk with a few people, and they said: 'Well, to get out of our hair, since you want to go into the service, here's your diploma, buddy. 'Bye. Just get out of here.'

"He wrecked a car, did a lot of damage, put his Mom in real debt. He got into pretty hot water there. That's the reason he went into the service. He's a lance corporal now in New Orleans."

Ball got in some trouble recently in the Corps, said Belcher, by fighting in a store in New Orleans.

Belcher said his own painful odyssey through the military started out the same as his buddy's.

"I had some trouble at high school. I needed a half a credit of senior English to graduate. I talked to a few people, and they said: 'Fine. We'll give you the half credit just to get you out of our hair.'

". . . I told the recruiters when I enlised that I wanted to be a diesel mechanic. They said, 'Sure, you can work on diesels.' And I said, 'well, I don't want to work on diesels. I want to learn how to tear them down and put them back together.' And the recruiter said, 'Sure man, that's what 63 Charlie is.' So I says okay.

"And turn around and find out when I went to school at [Fort Knox, Ky.] that it wasn't no tearing down-diesels. It was parts changing, all it was. Army jeeps, Army trucks, Army tanks.

"Only thing I did was like charge starters, put brakes on, hydraulics, stuff like that. Never did tear down an engine. Didn't learn anything."

(An Army spokesman said 63 Charlie is a "general mechanic occupational specialty.")

The Army shipped Belcher to a base outside Stuttgart, Germany, where he worked as a "63 Charlie" on vehicles. He said living in an abandoned German barracks became unbearable because of the stereo noise, filthy toilets and other demoralizing conditions.

He moved into an apartment, turned to drugs for an escape and was court-martialed last year on drug charges. His tour ended in the Army prison at Fort Leavenworth. Now he is home with a bad conduct discharge.

The Marine sergeant who used to try to fill recruiting quotas for the Charleston office by signing up the Teels, Balls and Belchers called late one night to unburden himself. He was reading about the recruiting scandals and, perhaps, feeling guilty about his part in signing up kids who didn't belong in the military or didn't truly qualify.

"They want us to get bodies and they don't care how we can get them," he said.

The sergeant said he and fellow recruiters took in young men they knew were not physically fit. They changed birth dates and identification cards. They gave applicants answers in advance to military entrance tests. They promised kids more than the military could deliver.

The sergeant, who did not want his name used, said he still feels particularly guilty about signing up one naive, vulnerable West Virginia boy.

The recruiter said he knew the youth would crack under the pressure of becoming a Marine. Last year, according to the sergeant, the boy went haywire on Okinawa, where he drank himself to death. The recruiter assumed it was suicide, but a spokesman at Marine headquarters in Washington said a check of the records for 1977 and 1978 revealed no suicide under those circumstances on Okinawa.

When the Senate Armed Services Committee investigated Marine recruiting, it examined 1,835 allegations of recruiting fraud all around the country and found that 351 of them were true. Other services have been accused of fraudulent enlistment practices as well.

Some of the Marine fraud was committed by recruiters under the Charleston command.

Of 73 youths signed up by that command in November and December 1977, 55 of them, or 32 percent, have dropped out of the Marine Corps without finishing their obligated tours of service.

Three of the 55 were enlisted under fraudulent circumstances created either by the recruiter or by the youths themselves, according to the corps.

Twenty-one could not handle Marine training and were discharged without penalty.

Seventeen were found to be medically unfit.

Eight were adjudged to have unsuitable personalities.

Three were discharged for misconduct.

Three were found to have "defective" attitudes.

First-time volunteers are dropping out of all the services at about the same one-in-three rate shown in Charleston sample.

Recruiting costs the Pentagon about $10,000, mostly in advertising, for each applicant lured to inquire about joining the Marines. Overall, it cost $5.2 billion to recruit, train, separate and pay benefits to the first-timers who dropped out of all the armed services between 1974 and 1977, according to the General Accounting Office.

Alphonso Clemons, 23, grew up in a cinder block house squatted between a dirt road and the railroad tracks running through Logan, a town 70 miles south of Charleston near mountains still rich with coal.

"He was never interested" in going into the mines, recalled his father, JAMES W. Clemons. "He always wanted other kinds of jobs. There just ain't too many jobs around here to get, lessen it's the coal mines. Well, you can get a little cheap job, washing dishes, something like that."

The father lives in a tiny aluminum trailer with a backyard littered with cars brought in for repairs. Clemons makes his living fixing cars, but he figures his son will do something more exciting because of what he is learning in the Marine Corps.

"He's already done a lot of things," said Clemons. "He's been to Japan. He called me from Japan."

"If I'd stayed a civilian," said Marine Cpl. Clemons in a telephone interview from Camp Lejeune, "I'd never have got the traveling part. It's a good experience that'll be with you all your days."

Clemons is doing well in the Marine Corps, according to his superiors. He is one of those black kids who used the military as a way up the ladder. He is an ammunition specialist. Young Clemons expects he could get a good job outside the service in an ammunition plant, but he says he will reenlist in the Corps if his specialty qualifies for a reenlistment bonus.

Other blacks also have seen the military as an opportunity for a better life, especially during the 1970s when unemployment was high for blacks. The percentage of blacks who joined the Marine Corps jumped from 14 percent to 24 percent between 1971 and 1978.The number of blacks joining the Army jumped from 14 percent to 34 percent in the same period.

High school counselors sometimes see the military as an opportunity for their students, but find indifference or opposition in most cases.

Rosella Wagner, guidance counselor for Logan High School, said, "I don't try to influence them. But if any of them do ask my personal opinion I tell them I think it's a good deal. [The military] gives you a chance to grow up, gives you a little security while you're in, has a lot of opportunities there for you."

But most students resist.

"If you do have one or two students in a home room who are interested in the military," Wagner said, "they wouldn't say it out in class and get kidded by their friends."

If you are a recruiting sergeant in Charleston, that's the dilemma. Some of the kids who snicker may be the ones who would make good recruits. And some of those who are interested in the service are the ones who can't hack it.