WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA -- To Lt. Col. John Cassady and his company here along the border with Kuwait falls the task of identifying the remains of fellow Marines killed in action and readying them for shipment home.

"If we do our job perfectly, everybody who pays the price for {this war} would be accounted for and returned home," said Cassady, and when it is over, "there will be no unknown soldiers."

His graves registration unit, encamped behind tall berms of desert sand, is now the most forward central collection point for the bodies of fallen comrades retrieved from the battlefield. His men work and sleep in tents pitched in deep pits covered with camouflaged netting. Refrigerated trailer vans hold the remains of Marines until they are shipped to the rear lines.

As a ground assault into Kuwait presumably approaches, and cross-border clashes step up, Cassady's men already have received the remains of the 11 Marines killed last week, at least seven of them in what the Pentagon now says was "friendly fire."

They also have treated, in "exactly the same" way as Marines' remains, the bodies of a few Iraqis killed in skirmishes. This equal treatment is required under the Geneva conventions governing the conduct of war. But it is also, said Cassady, "the human thing." After processing, Iraqi remains are turned over to Saudi authorities.

Cassady and his men are not expected to engage in fighting, but they face the emotional and psychological pressures of a grim task. Their commander, Brig. Gen. Chuck C. Krulak, called Cassady's unit "the unsung heroes of this damn war."

"In a lot of ways, I think that's the truth," said Cassady. "Our guys work at all hours of the night, 24 hours. If a body comes in, the lights go on. . . . These guys display a lot of courage. It's not facing the enemy, but I tell you, it's facing a lot of reality. They grow up fast."

Cassady said he tries to emphasize to his regular Marines and reservists "the reality of what they are going to deal with" and to encourage them to "concentrate on the process and service aspect to it, and try not to think of the reality of what's sitting in front of you."

Lance Cpl. Troy Moseley, 21, of Snyder, Tex., is one of the unit's handful of volunteers. Shortly after arriving in Saudi Arabia, Moseley said he "was asked whether I wanted to be in graves registration. I said that sounds like a job I could handle" even though "I didn't have any idea what it was about."

He and his fellow volunteers were given a "black book and we sat down at a table . . . we began training, doing drills, until we were ready," said Moseley. When he found out what the job entailed, he said he did not ask to be reassigned. "It never crossed my mind."

The toughest part of the job, Moseley said, is waiting. "Every time we get a call {saying} you're going to have remains . . . it's a bad kind of anticipation."

Reservist Marc Griffith, 19, of Carrollton, Ga., who left his job as a hospital security guard when called up, said the hardest part for him was "showing compassion at all times." It depends on your emotional level at the time . . . death's not an easy thing at all."

A psychiatrist and chaplain call on the units to offer moral and spiritual help. And Cassady does his own therapy. "We find that by talking it out, we defuse problems. It's picking out whatever bothered 'em. . . . {It} can be small things. It's amazing, whatever sticks in your mind. I don't think that experience particularly lessens the shock value. They see something different every time they walk in."

Those who ask to be reassigned because of the emotional toll of the job are evaluated by a psychologist, and if it is determined they could suffer lasting damage, they are moved out, said Cassady, adding that "a few" have left for this reason since the unit began forming five months ago.

Cassady, 45, a ruddy-faced redhead from Stratford, N.J., is senior graves registration officer for all Marines in Saudi Arabia. He describes the job as "a logistics function" of "identification and accountability." His unit will scour the battlefield for those listed as missing.

A top priority for Cassady's people is speed, so that "the family gets the casualty back just as soon as they can." Sometimes, the remains are at their camp "as little as an hour. Sometimes we have to keep 'em a day." Right now, remains are being returned to the United States, where final identification is done, in about 24 hours, he said.

"The whole idea," said Krulak, "is to avoid the tragic call of someone {to a family} saying 'Hey, your son was killed,' when in fact he wasn't. Graves registration is just that."

Casualties are a sensitive topic among U.S. military here, many of whom recall how the Vietnam War's daily "body counts" and vivid television coverage of wounded servicemen helped shift American public opinion away from support of that war.

In his interview with a combat media pool, Cassady acknowledged that this official sensitivity is partly due to the military's Vietnam experience. "It's a television war," he said. "Opinion can be molded. You know that as well as I do."

"I'm very sensitive to having you around here, to tell you the truth," the colonel said. "It's not appropriate" because "we deal with some very private things here. . . . What we're doing is trying to take care of people and not publicize it. . . . You don't go and look in a morgue in a hospital.

"We're not a morgue, {but} it's not appropriate for general knowledge. People could misunderstand very easily."