DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, SEPT. 11 -- Cpl. Deborah Yelle is the only woman in the Marine Corps who specializes in repairing tactical satellite communications systems. That skill has put her at a base 100 miles closer to the front lines of potential combat than her Marine fiance, who also has been dispatched to the Arabian Peninsula.

The U.S. military is deploying more women to the Middle East in a wider range of combat-support jobs than in any previous military operation. While women placed in combat situations during the invasion of Panama already had put female soldiers in the public eye, never before have so many U.S. military women been deployed so close to potential combat.

They are arming the attack planes that would be launched against Iraqi tanks, directing the missiles designed to intercept enemy missiles or aircraft, and operating the supply lines that would be primary targets during an Iraqi assault.

For the U.S. forces, the massive deployment of troops to this desert kingdom is stretching the limits of laws that exclude the use of women in combat and is raising new questions about the credibility of 42-year-old regulations.

Operation Desert Shield also is likely to change dramatically and permanently the American public's image of women in the armed forces, single and married. This time, it is not only fathers and husbands who leaving their children and wives, but mothers and wives departing from their families.

"Mothers don't expect their daughters to do this," said Staff Sgt. Martha Brown, 33, who repairs radio equipment for the Marine Corps. "My brother went to Vietnam. It was something men did, not women. This is changing the image."

While U.S. military officials refuse to specify the numbers of personnel ordered to the Middle East, they estimate that women will comprise 10 to 12 percent of the 150,000 troops expected by the end of this month. Almost 11 percent of the American armed forces worldwide is female.

Until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab nations were among the few locations on the globe where the American military excluded women from some military exchanges and operations in deference to religious sensitivities.

Now U.S. military women have not only entered the kingdom in large numbers, but have been granted freedoms that Saudi Arabian culture denies its women, including driving automobiles and use of government athletic facilities.

But this operation also is rekindling long-standing controversies over the role of women in the military and the discrimination and contradictions they face as a minority trying to succeed in a male-dominated institution.

The Middle East crisis has raised the possibility of large numbers of American military women being killed in combat. In this battle theater, the front lines are so blurred that U.S. combat exclusion rules for women could be rendered meaningless if war breaks out.

"It's almost less likely for us to get hit," said Army Specialist Brian Bliss, 21, an infantryman patrolling the desert with the 82nd Airborne Division, a job that Army policy bars women from holding. "It's more likely the Iraqis are going to hit the supplies where the women are."

U.S. officers say they believe many of Iraq's Scud-B missiles, which can be equipped with chemical warheads, are aimed at Saudi ports and air bases, where most women troops are assigned to logistics, maintenance, intelligence and communications teams. Women also are helping operate Patriot air defense missiles that could intercept those Scuds.

"We are within range of all their toys," said Air Force Capt. Becky Colaw, who is assigned to an A-10 attack plane squadron at one of the Saudi air bases closest to the Kuwait border. Colaw said women represent about 12 percent of the personnel ordered here with the planes from Myrtle Beach, S.C.

While American military women -- mostly nurses -- have been killed in past conflicts, the numbers have been small. But in the first frightening period after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when almost no military protection existed here, dozens of women were among the initial U.S. military units dispatched to Saudi Arabia.

"When we first got here, we were all nervous," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sherry Dixon, 32, whose West Germany-based U.S. medical air evacuation squadron was one of the first units to arrive. "There was nothing between us and them."

The uncertainty of conditions on the ground in Saudi Arabia during the first few days created major controversies and confusion over the deployment of women. Female Marines complained that the males in their units were sent to the Middle East while they were left behind at their California bases.

"First they said no females were going, then they said 'Yes, they are going,' " said Brown, who has been in the Marine Corps 10 years. "Then we waited five days and they sent us on the second wave."

The perception that the military was vacillating on the issue of deploying women to the Middle East prompted an angry tirade from some members of Congress.

"It was always my plan to bring women from day one," countered Lt. Gen. Walter E. Boomer, who commands all Marines here. "This was a huge operation . . . . We were scrambling for just the basic things in the beginning, like heads {latrines} and sanitary facilities." Some of the women wanted to be on the first flights out, noted Boomer. "We said, 'No, take your pack off and relax for a few days.' "

That rankled some women troops, who complain that the special treatment is demeaning and breeds resentment from their male colleagues.

While male Marines were sweatingin 120-degree temperatures in open-air tents and sweltering dockside warehouses, some women Marines were housed nearby for three days aboard air-conditioned ships. "The guys hated it," said Brown. "Then we were moved to a headquarters building. They resented that. It really wasn't fair. We are Marines. We should be treated as Marines."

Brown and her female colleagues now live in "tent cities" alongside the men and rotate in shifts, using the spartan showers and latrines.

Most military officials say women now fill so many critical jobs in the armed forces that it would be impossible to conduct an operation this massive without them.

Some of the medical units assigned here are 50 percent female. Large percentages of women were in the first reserve units ordered here. And most of the women, like the men, were eager to put years of military training to use in a real operation.

"I wanted to come -- it's my job," said Airman 1st Class Kimberly Childress, 27, as she clambered up a ladder to inspect the classified communications system aboard an A-10 tank-killer plane placed on alert.

"I'm not sure I want to be in the middle of the desert," said the Air Force's Colaw, a public affairs officer assigned to the A-10 squadron. "But I know I don't want to be left at home."

Still, many men question whether women should be allowed to serve so near the front lines of possible combat. "A lot of them would rather we weren't here because of the threat of war," said Cpl. Deborah Yelle, who joined the Marine Corps six years ago. "They don't want to see us get hurt."

Army Lt. Lori Fanning, 22, of Columbia, S.C., who has been assigned to a postal unit funneling mail to troops in the desert foxholes, observed: "We get paid the same. We have an equal opportunity to die for our country. You live with the possibility of somebody dropping a bomb on you or some terrorist blowing you up. But you do what you have to do out here."

Now many of the women are facing what men have encountered for centuries as they left their families for war. "I have a 20-month-old daughter at home," said Air Force Capt. Donna Hern, 26, who heads a vehicle-operations crew assigned to an air base in the neighboring United Arab Emirates. "Leaving her to come here is the roughest thing I've ever had to do."

Hern's husband, a helicopter pilot at Andrews Air Force Base, is caring for their baby.

In many cases, both husbands and wives have been deployed to the Middle East. Brown's husband, Jeff, is assigned to a Marine air tactical control squadron near the communications unit where she is posted. The two see each other for about 15 minutes each day. They sit and chat, and occasionally sneak a kiss.

But some military women complain that the austere living conditions and the prohibitions imposed on women in the Islamic culture have exacerbated problems with sexual harassment and discrimination from their U.S. male colleagues.

"The Saudi culture makes it easier for men who believe women don't belong in the military," said a nurse from a unit in which women have complained about a commander who allegedly has made derogatory, sexist remarks about some of his women officers and troops.

"They make constant jokes about how we could learn something about subservience from the Saudi women," said an Air Force lieutenant. "We don't think it's very funny."