WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA -- Women soldiers, by federal law and military regulation, can play no front-line role in war. But the Iraqi Scud missile is a unisex weapon that has brought the front line to many of the 28,000 American women serving in Operation Desert Storm.

"Even now, my heart stops every time" a Scud alert is sounded, said Air Force Sgt. Carla Barbour-Clark, 30, of Madison, Va. "That rush of adrenaline comes, and there's a moment of panic. I don my chem{ical} gear, and if I see someone who is having trouble with theirs, I help them."

Barbour-Clark, a forklift operator with the 438th Aerial Port Squadron, of McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., works in eastern Saudi Arabia at a sprawling air base that has become a prime target for incoming Scuds. For 12 hours each day, she moves pallets laden with war supplies; for the other 12, she tries to rest, knowing that a "Condition Red" may send her scrambling for cover.

"I set my alarm to go off at 11 p.m., and I was just getting out of bed," she said of a recent Scud attack on the base. "I put on my chem gear and sat on the floor. It gets easier, though. I'm getting quite proficient at putting on my chem gear."

Being a woman in the U.S. armed forces has its drawbacks, even in the best of times. There is the constant need to prove oneself in what many men perceive to be their world. And there continue to be snide remarks, wolf whistles and worse.

But war adds an extra dimension. The federal laws and military regulations that bar women from serving in combat units do not stop the enemy from shooting at them.

This air base in eastern Saudi Arabia, hundreds of miles from the front line on the northern Saudi border, has been the scene of almost nightly Scud missile attacks.

Thus far, Patriot air-defense missiles have knocked down every Scud that has reached the base, but the threat remains a gnawing fear that everyone -- man or woman -- copes with as best he -- or she -- can.

"I'm scared," said Tech. Sgt. Deborah Knight, 26, of Charleston S.C., a reservist attached to the 38th Aerial Port Squadron. "I'm scared of what's going on here, of what we don't know, . . . of what he {Iraqi President Saddam Hussein} has and what he doesn't have."

In interviews this week, women who work at the air base here expressed fear, dread, pride in a job well done, hatred of Saddam and the wish that the war would end soon so that everyone can go home -- in short, the same attitudes expressed by American men in interviews thoughout the Persian Gulf region since hostilities erupted Jan. 17.

Knight volunteered for 45 days of active duty when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August. She served her time, only to be recalled and sent to Saudi Arabia six weeks later -- forced to leave her husband and 4-year-old son.

In Charleston, she works as an administrative assistant at an insurance company. Here, she handles manifests and invoices for one of the biggest logistical operations ever mounted by the U.S. government. She said that in Charleston, she works "Monday through Friday . . . in an office, and I don't have Scuds fired at me." Her husband, a commercial tire salesman, "does not understand this," she said, referring to the gulf conflict.

"He doesn't understand why we're here. I asked him if he was watching the news. He said he stopped watching -- it's too depressing," she said. "{Saddam} right now is the enemy against me. He's the reason I'm here. He's the reason I'm away from my son."

The novelty of being a woman in a traditionally male business, a subject of tremendous interest when the Saudi deployment began, has worn off with the onset of the war. Air Force Staff Sgt. Lauren Long, 27, of Sandusky, Ohio, a vehicle operator-dispatcher with the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing, recalled the early days of wisecracks and come-ons.

"You do find it offensive, but they have gotten a lot better, now that things have kicked off," Long said. "A lot of times I try to just play it off. A lot of times I show my worst side. I will let them know when it goes too far."

During Scud alerts, while many of her colleagues are sheltered in bunkers, she stays in her office in a gas mask and chemical suit, calling around to her drivers.

"I'm wondering if everybody's okay out there," she said. "In certain instances we've taken people aside, told them, 'You've got to regroup, calm down.' We've got to be there just like any male supervisor. You have to tell yourself, 'This is it, you have to be there for everybody. If you can't do it now, you can't do it.' "

Long believes that "if women were allowed to go on the front lines they would do just as well as anybody," and "if women were allowed to be fighter pilots, we would be the best fighter pilots around. They'd set new standards and blow everybody out of the water." She said she probably would have been a combat pilot if "there would have been an opportunity," but sometimes, "you have to take what you can get."

Others, however, are not eager to go into combat. Barbour-Clark, the divorced mother of a 3-year-old daughter, does not think women should be on the front lines, because "I don't think America is ready to see women coming home in body bags."

And Knight, who sometimes wonders "why we're here," does not think that "we're capable. We're not fighters. It's always been a man's army. I'm sure {women are} capable of killing, but I'm not sure they should be."

Sgt. Sherry Callahan, an assistant maintenance crew chief with the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing, is in the job closest to that of combat pilot the Air Force offers the women of Desert Storm. She is the shift boss in charge of preparing and maintaining the F-15 fighter flown by wing commander Col. John McBroom. He calls the plane "the Boomercraft," but to Callahan it is known as "Daphne."

"I gotta be honest with you, {Daphne} is a hot jet," Callahan said. "It hasn't broken since we got here. God, please don't curse me and cause it to fall apart all of a sudden."

"We do practically everything," she added. "We wash it. We do maintenance on it. We take care of it, just like a personal car. Except that we can't take it home."

For Callahan, a 140-pound mechanic, the biggest frustration is "when something . . . just won't fix right, or you have to break a bolt or something, and you don't have that extra little bit of strength that you need." The men she works with "help me out a lot," she says, but she wishes they did not have to do it.

"When you first get to a base in this specialty, the guys always have a question in their minds: 'Is she going to be able to carry her load?' " Callahan said. "But once they find out . . . they'll help you out as much as they can."

Most women on the base do not carry guns, but for some a rifle is a tool of the trade. Staff Sgt. Cynthia Williams, 31, of Gloucester, Va., is a gate guard and policewoman with the 1st Security Police Squadron of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing. She is the single parent of a 4-year-old son, an 11-year Air Force veteran and an expert shot with an M-16 rifle.

Scuds gave her "a jolt" at first, she said, but "terrorism is more frightening." In the event of a terrorist attack on the base, she said, she would not hesitate to use her weapon: "Oh yes. To protect myself or one of my friends or my partners, yes, definitely."

Lauren Long almost resents the question. "The gate guards are male and female alike," she said. "They could be shot by terrorists just like the men" and "we're just as qualified as the men. I would feel no hesitation in picking up an M-16 and going at it."