LONGMONT -- Pat Thorpe objected to U.S. involvement in Vietnam as a student at the University of Texas 25 years ago. Cathy Violette also had reason to be concerned then: Her husband left for active duty in Vietnam two days after their son, Tom, was born.

Now both women find themselves coping with the prospect of war from a different perspective. Thornton's son, James McCaslin, and Violette's son, Tom, have been dispatched to the Persian Gulf. Their mothers now spend Wednesday nights running a local support group for relatives of men and women serving in Operation Desert Shield.

"I absolutely support my son," said Thorpe, who talked to him by phone last weekend. "I'm not sure I agree with their being there, but I'm not sure I disagree."

"I listen to the president and, God, I want to believe him," Thorpe said. "He holds my son's life in his hands."

Such mixed feelings were common among the 40 relatives who gathered around long tables at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall last week. Passing around snapshots and swapping advice about what color socks or long johns to send abroad, they were haunted by the uncertainty and worried that a growing anti-war movement also has become anti-military.

Residents of this community of 51,000, just outside the university town of Boulder, are considered relatively conservative and middle class. Most work for the school district and the local Twin Peaks Mall.

Those at the VFW post Wednesday night chuckled at mention of their more liberal neighbors in Boulder.

The University of Colorado is there, and the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant is in the vicinity, making the town a magnet for anti-nuclear protesters and peace activists, spawning ground for macrobiotic catering services and an herbal tea industry.

At University Memorial Center last week, freshman Mike Elias, 18, handed out fliers on how to claim conscientious objector status. Elias said he receives far more response when he points out that, in the absence of a national draft, student deferments also no longer exist.

He cited former Navy secretary James H. Webb's contention that the draft is likely to be reinstated and brushes off President Bush's statements to the contrary. "It takes threat of personal involvement to get them active," Elias said of fellow students.

Paul Casey, director of the Rocky Mountain Peace Center, said concern about war has grown slowly but steadily on campus as he has worked to organize peace rallies, vigils, teach-ins and bike-a-thons.

Although he wonders about lack of student activity, he noted that the Boulder city and county councils have passed resolutions condemning U.S. intervention in Iraq. "It's been crazily busy," he said.

Oddly enough, the peace activists and the Desert Shield support group members dread the same thing: confronting each other.

Casey tells of organizing a protest at a University of Colorado football game, where he expected to be heckled and derided by aggressive Orange Bowl-bound football fans. Instead, he said, passersby generally were friendly and supportive.

Thorpe's support group had similar reservations when invited to a rally on the capitol steps in Denver Friday. "This is a nice quiet group, and I don't know if I want to be involved in a public emotional display on this," she said.

"What do you say to someone who's demonstrating against your loved one?" said Barbara Williams, whose brother is in the gulf. "The reality is that they're over there, and we support the troops."

Casey said his older brother fought in Vietnam and has not been the same since then. "I just think it comes down to how much bigger the effect {of war} is in terms of the ongoing legacy of war than just the body counts and lost limbs," he said.

Thorpe described the Vietnam War as the "death of our innocence." She said she no longer could blindly protest a war, especially one in which her son is involved. "It's just not that simple," she said. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to go back and be that naive?" Sandra Eaton, mother of a Marine in the gulf, said she voted for Bush but is worried that the United States now looks too "wishy-washy" by offering to negotiate. For these relatives, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's announced intention to release hostages was yet another mixed signal. "I won't hold my breath," Violette said.

On that point, Casey and Priscilla Inkpen, who runs the campus ministry next door to the peace center, do not disagree with the military families. But they do differ on approach.

"The casualties are going to be so high so fast," Inkpen said. "We've got to mobilize and stop this now."