Until Wednesday evening, Lewis B. Puller Jr., who lost both his legs and portions of his hands in the Vietnam War, seemed likely to be headed for what he said with a chuckle would be his "15 seconds" of fame.

He also would have become the Pentagon's public relations headache. A senior attorney in the Defense Department's office of general counsel, Puller, the son of one of the Marine Corps' most famous generals, had begun to speak out against the likelihood of war in the Persian Gulf.

Liberating Kuwait, he said in the quiet of his Fairfax County home, was not worth the horrors of war, not yet. If he could have talked to President Bush, Puller said, "I'd tell him to pick up the phone and tell Saddam Hussein, 'Is there something we can do . . . and avoid this senseless bloodbath that we're going to take?' "

And until the fighting began, many seemed eager to hear a voice from within the Pentagon arguing passionately about the horrors of war. A book agent in New York had alerted the networks and talk shows about a book Puller has written on how the Vietnam War changed his life. CNN, Geraldo Rivera and others were clamoring for interviews.

But by yesterday morning, when Puller had returned to the Pentagon, he was no longer a critic of George Bush. "Anytime the president makes a hard decision like that, this is something that I support -- fully," he said.

Puller, 45, had been transformed by the start of the conflict he dreaded. "I thought then and still think it was a mistake to commit ground troops there," he said of Bush's earlier decision to double the size of U.S. forces in the gulf region. "But I certainly hope that this war ends quickly, is successful and has few casualties."

Puller said he had warned public affairs officers at the Pentagon that he was beginning to speak out about the war. "They said: You speak for yourself, and if you do get interviewed, tape-record yourself, for your own protection," he recalled.

But Puller, who went to work at the Pentagon as a lawyer 11 years ago after an unsuccessful race for Congress in Virginia, said he had no fears of retribution. "I'm not a policy-maker. I'm just crossing the t's and dotting the i's. I'm speaking for myself," he said, adding that most of his work was with civilian personnel issues and "pretty dry."

The onset of hostilities, however, is unlikely to bank the fire that still burns within Puller's crippled body. A New York publisher gave him $175,000 in advance royalties for his book, "Fortunate Son," to be published in June. Movie producers are talking about a film. All of this has stunned a man who for years kept his misgivings about Vietnam and wars in general buried deeply in his psyche, never telling his wife how he lost his legs when he stepped on a mine near Da Nang 22 years ago.

The book, which took five years to write, tells how the son of Gen. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller joined the Marine Corps in hopes of emulating his father, a hero of the Korean War. "He was a hero in a different era; he saw things in black and white," said Puller. "I see things in gray."

Critically wounded on Oct. 11, 1968, Puller tells in the book how he overcame a serious bout with alcoholism and severe depression over his injuries, which initially left him unable to raise his head. The experiences left him deeply troubled by war. The chance that his 22-year-old son, Lewis III, might be asked to fight in a war prompted him to go public before his book is published.

Puller said he is not confident that he has resolved his anguish over the Vietnam War.

"For me {the book} was not a question of right and wrong," he said. "It was part of achieving an inner peace and going on living a productive life. I can't say that I've achieved it, but I've had some success."