WITH U.S. TROOPS, SAUDI ARABIA -- John Mager is quick to admit what attracted him to his local Army recruiting office in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., three years ago: "I came in to get my college money, and get out."

Now, after almost two months of working in a makeshift combat supply warehouse in the Saudi Arabian desert, the 21-year-old enlisted man has developed the same stoic attitude as many troops here who never expected to find themselves on the edge of war. "If we've got to fight, I'm willing to fight for my country," Mager said.

In the brutal sands of Saudi Arabia, the enlisted ranks and officer corps of America's all-volunteer military force are being put to the toughest test in the 18 years since the draft was abolished. By all statistical indicators, it is the best-trained, most highly educated military in modern U.S. history, with few of the severe drug, alcohol and discipline problems of the Vietnam era's drafted force.

But the young adults who comprise this volunteer force were not recruited with appeals to patriotism specifically to go to war, but, instead, to join a peacetime military that offers money for college, an opportunity to learn a skill that might lead to a high-paying civilian job, a chance for travel and adventure.

"A lot of the young kids join just to do their time, get the GI bill money and go to college," said Tech. Sgt. Jean Hartmaier, 28, of Philadephia, an Air Force medical administration specialist. "They didn't think about the bottom line of something like this happening."

Some senior commanders and retired military officials have criticized American troops in Saudi Arabia for griping about the tough living conditions, homesickness and other discomforts of a wartime scenario.

"They're saying, 'That's not very patriotic,' " said Air Force Lt. Col. Doug Cole, commander of the first airlift unit to reach Saudi Arabia in early August. "It's a volunteer military, it's their choice to be in, and now it's time to pay up. But that doesn't make it any easier."

Cole, 41, noted that many of the 240,000 troops in the Middle East were uprooted from their homes and families on only a few hours' notice. While the military routinely tells its troops of the possibility of 30-to-60-day deployments, it had not prepared them for an open-ended assignment halfway around the globe.

The makeup of this force is also vastly different from the drafted armed forces of the previous generation. The primarily male bachelor ranks of the Vietnam military have been replaced by an institution that is 11 percent female and an enlisted corps in which 60 percent of the troops are married. Never before in the history of the U.S. military have so many husbands and wives served together in combat-support roles.

The family responsibilities have added to the stress of many young enlisted troops and officers trying to cope with a hostile, alien environment and the prospect of war.

Army Pfc. Angela Padilla left her 3-month-old baby at home with her Army husband when she went to Saudi Arabia from Fort Bragg, N.C. In the three months she has been here, Padilla has missed her son's first words and has been forced to watch him grow up through a fistful of worn photographs she keeps in the pocket of her desert battle fatigues.

Padilla, 20, said that for her first few days in Saudi Arabia she cried almost constantly: "All you can think about is your family. You wonder what they're going through without you."

Eventually, however, Padilla, who joined the Army two years ago to escape her tiny hometown of Hernandez in northwest New Mexico and to help finance her college education, developed a remedy for her emotions. After driving a truck as many as 10 hours transporting equipment across the desert, she runs six or seven miles every night to ensure that she will be "tired enough to go to sleep" and not lie in her sleeping bag dwelling on her homesickness.

For the military's youngest officers, none of whom fought in Vietnam, the leadership responsibilities they hoped to hone in the service have been tested dramatically by the personal and military strains of the Persian Gulf operations.

Lt. Cornell McNeal, 27, of Savannah, Ga., had known he would make the military his career ever since his father pushed him into a private military high school. He is now responsible for more than $10 million worth of high-technology equipment, and the military training and emotional well-being of the men in his 24th Infantry Division platoon.

"It's a tough leadership challenge to keep them motivated and keep their minds working," said McNeal, who received a commission three years ago when he graduated from college in the Army's ROTC program. "Nobody twisted anybody's arm to join the military, but you have to be prepared.

"Going to war is something we don't want to do," said McNeal, who has a wife and two young sons at home. "The troops are scared. I'm scared. But that's why you train -- so that when you're scared, you still know what to do."

While some combat troops continue to boast about how they will "kick butt," most of the men and women facing the forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein have become more sober in their outlook over the last three months.

Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer, commander of Marines in the region, admitted that the days of "rah-rah, let's go attack" have passed. "My force is quietly confident," he said.

"A lot of {the young troops} worry about dying," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tom Wells, a nurse at a forward-based Marine field hospital. "They don't talk a lot about it, and they don't come right out and say it, but you can tell they're always thinking about it." Wells said that, at 43, he has become a father figure to many of the young enlisted men assigned to his unit.

Veterans of Vietnam, now serving as commanders here, say they are more comfortable facing the possibility of combat with their all-volunteer force than with the troops they led in Vietnam.

Col. Dave Rolston, who was an infantry lieutenant in Vietnam, is now an artillery commander of the 24th Infantry Division. "Today's troops are more mature mentally and in much better physical shape -- the standards are higher to get in," he said.

The military continues to draw the largest percentage of its ranks from young men and women of middle-class and lower socio-economic backgrounds who view the service as a way to bolster their chances of success in life.

For as long as he could remember, Rickey Black had watched his mother and father trudge home from the textile mills every evening, just like most of the other adults in rural Cherryville, N.C.

"We used to say there was nothing in Cherryville but the dead and the dying," Black said. "Everybody does the same thing there. Working in the knitting mills is something I didn't want to do."

Today, 21-year-old Spec. Black is living under a white tent less than 30 miles from the Kuwaiti border. "I joined to get away from home," said Black. "I never dreamed I'd be in the middle of the desert."

But the educational benefits of the all-volunteer military have broadened the base of the military population.

Gage Ochsner was born into a wealthy New Orleans family. One of the nation's premier medical clinics is named for his grandfather, and his father is a physician who expected young Gage to follow in his footsteps.

At first, Ochsner resisted. "I was going to be the black sheep and avoid medicine," he said. But then he decided to attend medical school -- without the help of his family. He got a Navy scholarship that would be paid off with a large chunk of his medical career. Today, the 36-year-old Ochsner is directing preparations for combat medical operations aboard the floating hospital USNS Comfort.

The U.S. armed forces assigned to the Persian Gulf also are represented by many young adults who joined the service out of family tradition.

Lt. Shari L. Corbett runs a combat support unit with the forward-deployed 24th Infantry Division. Her father is working in an Air Force transport unit assigned to a base in the nearby United Arab Emirates. Her grandfather was in the Army, and her grandmother served as a Navy nurse in World War II.

Pfc. John Keller, a 19-year-old from Rapid City, S.D., also comes from a family of combat veterans. He said he joined the Army a year ago because he was not ready to go to college. "I wanted to play games and stay a little kid," he said. But Keller, like many other military teenagers here, has been forced to grow up quickly in his two months of desert duty. He has spent many hours thinking about the prospects of going to war.

"My grandfather was in World War II. My father was in Vietnam," Keller said. "Now I guess it's my turn, so hopefully my kids won't have to go to war."