THE BOMBING of the American Embassy in Beirut killed 17 Americans and seriously wounded dozens more. Today a memorial service will be held here to honor those who died. It will be a national commemoration, an expression of solidarity and determination that the work of peace in Lebanon will not be deterred. But for the families of those who have been killed, the service is much more personal, and the grief will endure long after the flags and the honor guards have left.

There is a myth that working abroad for the government is all perks and glamor, cocktail receptions and special privilege. It's wrong. The young Marine guard who was killed last week did not sign up for a chance to mingle with the international jet set. He went to perform a difficult and dangerous job and gave his life doing it.

The AID officers--of nine Americans at the mission, three were killed and four seriously injured-- were all career people, husbands and fathers with years of service in the underdeveloped world. Their work was economic assistance and development in a country torn by decades of war and disruption, and they were used to hardship posts. Foreign Service officers and intelligence experts who were seeking to resolve the almost intractable problems of the Middle East by peaceful means were serving not only this country but the people of that battered region as well. Very few dependents--and no children--were allowed to accompany these men to Beirut, so they worked under difficult and dangerous conditions without the comforts and consolation families provide.

The president struck exactly the right note Saturday night when he admitted that he could not joke at the White House correspondents' dinner, having come so recently from Andrews Air Force Base, where the bodies of those killed were brought home. His emotion was that of the leader of a nation that has suffered an outrage. But it was also the very personal anguish of a man who had touched and consoled the grieving survivors.

The memorial service today is an occasion to reflect on the dedicated service of these Americans who died in the cause of peace, and to express our respect and gratitude for that service to the families whose loss is painfully private in the midst of public ceremony.