When school started in September, a class of fifth-graders in Rochester, like children all around the country, became pen pals with a serviceman who was part of Operation Desert Shield.

But Desert Shield became Desert Storm, and suddenly some of the pen pals were dying, including a Marine from Utah.American casualties in the Persian Gulf war have been relatively few, but death already has touched scores of children who got to know the men through letters and photographs.

Like Marine Lance Cpl. Dion Stephenson, who corresponded with fifth-graders at Gates-Chili School District in suburban Rochester. Stephenson, of Bountiful, Utah, was one of the first Americans killed in action.

Teachers trained in crisis counseling spoke with the children, who later put up a bulletin board to honor their pen pal. A picture Stephenson sent to the class was used in the display.

A month after Iraq invaded Kuwait, at the start of the school year, grade-school teachers encouraged their students to write to U.S. troops. It seemed a good way to tie the crisis to lessons on current events, geography and history.

"To some degree we've put our students at risk. We've gone from a general knowledge of a person to a more personal level," said Jacob Romo, executive director of the Sullivan County, N.Y., department of community services.

The opportunity to memorialize a fallen pen pal will be important to children, said J. William Worden, director of an ongoing Harvard University study on child grief and bereavement.

"They can do that in different ways - making a scrapbook, writing stories or drawing pictures," he said. "Memorializing also involves being able to talk about the person that is gone."

Marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin of Wood Lake, Minn., was one of 11 Marines killed in the first sustained ground battle of the war. Elementary school children in his hometown had sent him art projects, and a fifth-grade class from nearby Granite Falls received a letter from him before his death.

"The night before (before they learned of Bentzlin's death) it was just statistics. Then it . . . comes home to a little town of 400 people," said Myron Hagelstrom, an accounting teacher at Echo-Wood Lake Cooperative High School.

Also killed was James Lumpkins, a Marine lance corporal from New Richmond, Ohio. Lumpkins was pen pal to a third-grade class in his hometown, a class that includes his 8-year-old sister, Sherry.

"I have ridden many camels since I've been in this country. It is very fun," Lumpkins wrote to the class, taught by his own first-grade teacher. "There isn't much else to do over here. I have been over here for almost five months. I am ready to come home."

The deaths are also difficult for teachers, said Paul Brinich, an associate clinical professor in psychology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

He told of a class where students made an American flag and inside the stars placed the names of relatives in the gulf. When a school counselor asked the teacher what she would do if one of those people died, she replied, "That won't happen," Brinich said.

"That's the teacher's hope, of course, but no one can guarantee that," he said.

If it does happen, Brinich said, "it would provide a sad but important opportunity for the teacher and children to talk about that aspect of war, that people do get killed, which is something we would like to protect the children from but is out there and is real."

Some schools are making plans to deal with the stress and trauma of war. Last month, Romo and about 40 other guidance counselors, psychologists and social workers held a workshop on the subject.

"With the good intent of trying to support our troops, we have developed a situation of the possibility of a pen pal being hurt or killed," Romo said. "Schools should be ready to deal with that as if it was a graduate of that school who was killed."

After a second-grade class at Eisenhower Elementary School in Wauwatosa, Wis., learned that their pen pal had been killed, officials made sure a social worker was on hand.

It is important to let the children ask questions and talk, said Sandy Guay, a social worker in the Wauwatosa School District. "It may be necessary to spend a little extra time with them to make sure they feel safe."

First-graders at Flower Mound Elementary School in Lewisville, Texas, had adopted Albert Haddad as their pen pal. Haddad, a Marine corporal from Lewisville, died with three other Marines when their helicopter crashed in the desert.

"It was a hard thing to do, but it was something the children needed to know," said counselor Jan Rose, who broke the news. "The children needed to hear it in a supportive way before they heard it on the news. They needed to have the opportunity to talk about it."

Children can learn from tragedies, lessons of commitment and loyalty, Worden said. And while some children may be traumatized by a loss of a pen pal, that doesn't mean the practice should be stopped, he said.

"We don't want to unnecessarily expose children to tragedies, but on the other hand . . . if they want to write to a service person, they should do that," he said. "What's bad is war and some people don't come back."

Andrea Mucci, 10, of Whitman, Mass., recently learned her pen pal, Marine Pfc. Scott A. Schroeder of Milwaukee, was killed in the Persian Gulf. She said she would write to a soldier again.

"The soldier who gets my letter might feel more comfortable because he has some company and someone to write to," she said.