A divided, reluctant federal appeals court denied claims yesterday by World War II and Korean War veterans who said the government reneged on promises to provide free lifetime health care if they stayed in the service for 20 years.

Although the government conceded that military recruiters made the promises, the Defense Department convinced the court that there was no valid contract because the assurances were not backed up by law. The 9 to 4 decision was made by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington. The veterans have been on both the winning and losing sides of the case. A federal judge in Jacksonville, Fla., ruled against them in 1998. In February, a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled in their favor.

The veterans will seek a Supreme Court hearing, said their lawyer, George "Bud" Day, a retired Air Force colonel. He was a prisoner of war in Vietnam with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The veterans received free benefits until 1995, when the Pentagon ended those benefits for veterans 65 and over because they were eligible for Medicare. Many had to buy supplemental policies, including Medicare Part B, to fill coverage gaps.

Even the judges in the majority acknowledged that they were uncomfortable with the ruling. They wrote that they "can do no more than hope Congress will make good on the promises made in good faith" to soldiers entering the service between 1941 and 1956. "We cannot readily imagine more sympathetic plaintiffs than the retired officers of the World War II and Korean War era involved in this case," Circuit Judge Paul R. Michel wrote for the majority.

The four dissenting judges expressed disdain for the government's actions.

"They were told, in effect, if you disrupt your family, if you work for low pay, if you endanger your life and limb, we will in turn guarantee lifetime health benefits," wrote Chief Circuit Judge Haldane Robert Mayer. "There is no doubt that the government made an unambiguous offer."

The two lead plaintiffs are Air Force and Navy veteran William Schism, who served from 1943 to 1979, and Robert Reinlie, who served in the Army and Air Force between 1942 and 1967. Both now live in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., along with their lawyer, Day.

Reinlie, who said he flew 30 missions in Europe as a B-17 navigator during World War II, noted that he spent about $15,000 of his own money for medical care after his coverage was withdrawn. Now 81, Reinlie said he is disappointed, but he vowed the case will continue.

Congress recently passed legislation providing free health care for these older veterans, beginning in 2002. At stake in this case are the costs, estimated by Justice Department officials as billions of dollars, paid by older veterans between 1995 and 2001, when the Pentagon issued regulations providing free coverage only for veterans under age 65.