At first he was faceless, one of the helmeted hundreds sifting out of the Carolina sky onto a sandy swatch of wasteland the Army calls Salerno.

One by one, platoon by platoon, they clipped the earth with a practiced tumble, fumbling with the olive-drab billows of their T10 parachutes before scurrying across the dunes to confront an imaginary enemy.

Among them was Pvt. Dana Franklin, considerably leaner, meaner and greener -- his skin daubed with camouflage -- than the moon-faced boy who six months earlier had scuffed the streets of DeLand, Fla., rummaging for a destiny.

He had been among the first of 30 from DeLand to enlist last summer and consequently was among the first to finish his 21 weeks of boot camp, advanced training as a medic and jump school at Fort Benning, Ga.

This was Franklin's first jump with his first regular unit -- the 73rd Armored Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division -- and the eighth of his short, happy life as a paratrooper. He had been awake since 3 a.m., chuting up and packing the 20-pound aid kit with splints and tourniquets and aspirin and Ben-Gay.

Had he been leaping into combat, he would have lugged an M16 to protect his patients and the kit would have included morphine and atropine for nerve gas victims and Thorazine to sedate those crumbling from battle fatigue.

There is no formal demarcation between recruit and real soldier, but clearly this son of a hardware store manager had traversed the passage into the regular Army's enlisted ranks. Six hundred thousand strong, they are different in a hundred ways from the G.I.s of their fathers' generation.

Among the distinctions: 31 percent of the enlisted troops are black, compared with 12 percent in 1964; one in 10 is female, as against one in 100 in the 1960s; half of the enlisted ranks are married, a proportion that has doubled since the end of conscription in 1973.

Their real disposable income is three times that of the draft-era soldiers. (Pvt. Franklin earns $750 a month, including jump pay.) Many live off-post. (Franklin, a 19-year-old bachelor, has a private room in the barracks.) And although only 7 percent today have college experience -- less than half the proportion of enlisted troops 20 years ago -- only one in seven is a high school dropout, which is less than half the number of dropouts in the ranks in 1964.

Most importantly, every soldier in the Army today is a volunteer. Twenty years ago, six of every 10 enlisted troops were draftees.

Slumped beneath a pine tree moments after his jump, Franklin ruminated on his recent trip to DeLand on leave a few weeks earlier: "Everybody looks at you different. Before, everyone was either your friend or your relative so they were nice to you. But now, it's like you've accomplished something, although all you've done is gone in the Army. "Searching for Tigers

Since men first slew one another with sticks and stones, the question has persisted: Who makes the best fighters?

In World War II, researchers first tried to catalogue scientifically the attributes of the most effective American infantrymen. The tigers tended to be at least 25 years old, married, high school graduates and mechanically nimble.

Similar studies in the Korean War showed that the better fighters were more intelligent, more masculine in their fondness for contact sports, more mature socially, healthier and more stable emotionally, according to Dr. Bruce Sterling, an Army researcher.

Subsequent tests have shown that a tank commanded by a soldier whose aptitude test scores place him in the upper mental categories may be six times as effective as one commanded by a CAT IV, shorthand for mental category IV, the lowest grouping accepted by the Army.

What this means for the Army of 1985 is not entirely clear. During the lean recruiting years in the late 1970s, the number of CAT IVs in the enlisted ranks doubled; many have remained in the Army, so that roughly one in five soldiers now is a CAT IV. Quite a few are sergeants.

On the other hand, the golden age of recruiting in the past three years has provided the Army with the brightest crop of young soldiers since the draft died. Nine of every 10 in 1984 are high school graduates. One senior Pentagon official says only half-jokingly that the fabled Army of the Potomac, once commanded by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, has been succeeded by an Army of the Charles, a reference to the river that flows past Harvard University.

Yet, it is the very foundations of the volunteer Army that bother some experts, particularly the fact that the United States has chosen to buy an Army rather than rely on the traditional force of citizen-soldiers drawn from throughout the nation. For example, from the 1940s through the 1960s, three out of four eligible American men had military experience; in the 1970s and 1980s it is one in four.

That fading concept of the shared military burden is "fundamental to a democracy if you're going to have a major military force," said sociologist Charles C. Moskos. "If you're a little military power like Canada, which has a force of 90,000, it doesn't matter as much . . . . But if you're going to have a large army with worldwide responsibilities, then it's essential.

"If you really take an economic model, you should go out and hire Third World nationals and be done with it," adds Moskos, a Northwestern University professor and one of the foremost authorities on the American military.

Moskos has called today's enlisted culture "the TransAm society," after the expensive muscle cars that seem to overrun Army posts. He estimates that as many as one soldier in four moonlights. And he wonders whether the preoccupation with material incentives -- it is not unusual to see paratroopers here poring over dogeared copies of Consumers' Guide -- may foster a mentality that is more occupational than warrior-like.

The unspoken question is: Will young Americans who fill the ranks for money fight effectively and die if called upon?

The Army's brass says yes.

"I don't have a problem with what I would call the enlistment options that are available," said Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, the Army's vice chief of staff. "If we're able to provide for somebody to come in and spend three or four years in the service and then go to college, that's right on. In fact, it used to be called the G.I. Bill."

Military men have known for centuries that soldiers usually risk their lives for their buddies rather than amorphous concepts such as democracy. As Thurman puts it, "small-unit cohesion is the glue that causes people to fight."

Whatever their initial reasons for enlisting, the general adds, today's volunteers are transformed into warriors by the bonding that occurs between soldiers. The Army has tried to nurture that with recent reforms that keep units intact for at least three years rather than constantly rotating soldiers in and out.

At Fort Bragg, on those ubiquitious TransAms, there is at least a vigorous bumper-sticker esprit evident, with slogans such as "Airborne puts the ICAN into AMERICAN" and "Airborne -- Death From Above." Each unit within the division has its own nickname -- Devils in Baggy Pants or Panthers or Thunder From the Sky -- and the airborne manifesto vows "that a parachutist is not merely a soldier who arrives by parachute to fight, but an elite shocktrooper . . . . Surrender is not my credo."

The recruits from DeLand had widely differing opinions about the capabilities of their new-found Army comrades. "All of the people I work with have high standards," Dana Franklin said of his 82nd Airborne buddies. "They want to be better than anybody else, and they expect you to have the same attitude."

But another private from DeLand said, in the drawl of central Florida, "There may be two or three guys out of the 50 [in the platoon] that I'd go to war with. They're like a bunch of kids. They consider it a 9-to-5 job . . . . There's no gung-ho attitude like I expected." 'Color-Blind' Recruiting

Some issues facing the Army defy bumper-sticker solutions. With blacks filling the ranks at nearly three times their proportion in the overall population, some experts have pondered a question best articulated in a 1982 Brookings Institution study:

"Does the fact that blacks will probably die in grossly disproportionate numbers, at least initially, in defense of national interests outweigh the fact that the armed forces provide many blacks with their only bridge from the 'permanent underclass' to a better life?"

If black casualties reflect their 31 percent distribution in the Army's ranks, "I think the political consequences would be extreme," said Moskos of Northwestern University. "It's an ostrich-like approach. People are hiding their head in the sand. It's naive, if not duplicitous, for people to say this is not going to be a problem."

Martin Binkin, a Brookings senior fellow, adds, "The problem is that the things that would have to be done in order to rectify it are either politically or socially unacceptable. The only way you could do it would be to go to some kind of national selective-service program."

But Gen. Thurman, the Army vice chief of staff, replied, "I believe that is a myth. Our recruiting system is color blind, and our assignment system is color blind. I don't see that as a major problem. It's not as if they're all lodged in the infantry."

(Contrary to conventional wisdom, combat deaths among black soldiers in Vietnam accounted for only 13 percent of Army fatalities, almost precisely mirroring the black population nationwide).

Even if the United States returned to conscription, the Pentagon could count on 200,000 volunteers annually in the armed forces, according to Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence J. Korb. Unless racial quotas were imposed, blacks still would be able to volunteer in disproportionate numbers.

"Mr. Policy Maker, what do you do about it?," Korb asked. "The young black or whatever who wants to join the Army -- what am I going to do, say no? In my view, the solution is worse than the perceived problem."

The fact that blacks are 20 percent more inclined to reenlist than whites indicates the military is "probably the best organization I know of for being non-discriminatory in terms of opportunities . . . . I think we should be praised rather than castigated," Korb added.

When it comes to casualties among another sensitive and controversial segment of the ranks -- women -- Thurman said he has no illusions that in war some likely would die, despite efforts to keep them out of combat jobs. (Of the 18,000 soldiers in the combat-ready 82nd Airborne, 100 to 200 are women.)

"The depth of combat is indeed deep. . . . All folks will be at risk throughout the [battle] area," Thurman added. "People who enlist in the Army know there is some risk." Adding Cogs to the Machine

For the two dozen soldiers from DeLand who have survived as small cogs in a very big machine, such issues hardly fall into the bailiwick of an Army private. Their meditations now are parochial rather than global, scaled to a personal rather than a national fate.

Naruemon Hill has no regrets, despite the family fights and blistered feet and inevitable doubts in the middle of the night. Having passed the 98-pound weight limit by only four ounces to enter the Army, the Thai-born Hill has put on 16 pounds of muscle. She qualified as a sharpshooter with the M16 -- missing the expert badge by one point -- and celebrated graduation from boot camp with a four-hour pass and a Japanese dinner.

She has patched up the bitter estrangement from her father and plans to spend Christmas at home in DeLand, more than a year after moving out in a spat over her enlistment. She has asked the Army to send her to Germany or Florida, where she will be a 71 Lima -- a clerk -- with aspirations to be a lawyer and maybe an officer.

"I've had a couple of second thoughts when I was alone by myself. I said, I could be in college right now. It's those times when it hurts. But I think I made the right decision."

David Autrey, 28, who enlisted with his wife, Justine, only to see her medically discharged from boot camp, endured some separation anxiety before finding his equilibrium in advanced training, fixing Cobra gunships. As a reward for doing well academically and whipping himself into such physical shape that he could do more than 50 pushups in two minutes, the Army gave him weekends off. He speaks now of finally finding his niche, of making the Army a career.

Ronald Logan, who left DeLand in late June as his siblings waved goodbye at the Greyhound bus depot, next saw his family when they drove to Missouri on vacation to visit him in boot camp. The drill sergeant even let them watch bayonet training, and there was Ronnie, bellowing "Kill!" with the other soldiers when the sergeant barked, "What do you do with your bayonet, soldier?"

Logan finished advanced training as a combat engineer on Oct. 4 and two weeks later shipped out for Frankfurt, West Germany. Before he left, he returned to DeLand on leave; the warrior come home. He brought T-shirts for the kids stenciled with the name of his unit, Alpha Company of the 2nd brigade's 4th battalion. And he even found time to win a trophy for saddling a steer at the fall roundup of the Future Farmers of America.

In Europe two German families have taken a shine to him, and he is studying the language, diligently trying to avoid the Ugly American image. Even now he speaks of reenlisting and perhaps becoming a military policeman.

His father says, "He's still a kid in a lot of ways." But his mother says, "He went from being a little boy to a man in three months." He will be 19 in February. It's too soon to say whether Ron Logan is being all he can be, but both parents are so proud they can hardly begin to articulate it.

"He's the kind of son that I can feel his love across the room," Mary Logan said. "He doesn't have to open his mouth for me to know it."