They look like Army wives; well-groomed, smiling, unfailingly polite. They run a conference with an attention to timetables and details that would make the Pentagon proud. But behind the cheery facade, today's Army wife says there are serious problems concerning the quality of military family life.

Army wives from every U.S. post and several foreign, and a smattering of enlisted women gathered recently in Washington to address these issues at a two-day conference sponsored by the Army Officers' Wives Club and the Association of the United States Army. The symposium, called "The Army Family: Analysis and Appraisal," combined elements of a consciousness-raising session with that of a lobbying-strategy workshop.

"You have to be a creative schizophrenic to be an Army wife," said Tommy Fairweather, from Enterprise, Ala., whose husband is a lieutenant colonel. She explained that one constantly has to be able to switch roles from sole head of the household to supportive partner.

"The first thing my husband said to me when he got back from Korea was 'Who fixed the toilet?'" recalled one Washington area wife. "He couldn't believe I could take care of all the things he used to do -- well, who did he think took care of things while he was away?"

While airing their common experiences of the pressures and isolation that is often part of military family life -- be it Army, Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps -- the women agreed that the military has much to offer; a sense of service, job security, broadening experiences for themselves and their children.

"It's a good life, we just want to make it better," said one participant.

As with most Americans, economic issues were foremost among concerns. Though officers' families are not forced to turn to food stamps to buy groceries as some enlisted families have been doing, many wives said they have taken jobs, not just for their own fulfillment, but to meet mortgage payments or to pay college tuition. But maintaining a two-career military family presents special problems.

"We've moved 30 times in the past 20 years," said Fairweather. "It took me seven years to get located someplace where I could get a masters degree in teaching gifted children. Even now, I adapt my career to my husband's."

Maureen Murphy Nutting, who brought her 6-week-old son to the conference, has a Ph.D. in history. But she says she "can't even look at a tenured position until my husband retires."

Besides pointing out the disruptions of frequent moves ("I know what time it is when I finally get a house set up," said one woman. "It's time to move."), participants said the allowance provided for moving is inadequate.

"We got $340 to move from Germany back to the states," said Mary Kay Downes, an English teacher in Fairfax County whose husband is stationed at the Pentagon.

Downes is a booster of military life, but would like to see the Army do more to keep its families happy.

"The child-care situation is grim," she said. "And for single military parents, it's very hard to find adequate care. On every base you can find baby-sitting mills."

One proposal that many women said would go a long way toward improving the Army experience, would be to treat Army wives as consultants -- instead of impediments -- on issues that affect them.

"We would like to see the Army give more support jobs to family members," said Bettie Steiger, co-chairman of the conference and wife of a lieutenant colonel and information director for a McLean technological firm.

"We could also be given a stronger voice in the running of the PX (post exchange). Right now we can only be non-voting members on the PX governing board."

As with anyone who deals with a massive bureaucracy, Army wives would like to see less red tape and petty restrictions.

"It took me 13 months to get my papers straightened out in order to get a civilian job on the base in Germany," said Sandy Shellabarger, a financial-planning consultant. "And getting that job meant I had to sign away all my rights."

Shellabarger also tells the story of one overseas wife whose husband forgot to sign all the required forms before he was assigned off the base, leaving her to discover she hadn't been given permission to drive.

Another common experience is that civilians often make Army wives feel a little like Rodney Dangerfield: They "don't get no respect." Yvonne May, whose staff sergeant husband is stationed at Fort Knox, said civilians don't appreciate the dedication that goes into a military career.

"My husband puts in 55-hour weeks," she said. "But so many civilians are down on the military. Well, if there's trouble, we're the ones they'll call on."

The Army wives were enthusiastic about one new development -- the greater role servicewomen are playing in the military. And they say they would like to strengthen the ties between the two groups of women.

One conference participant with experience on both sides is Maj. Barbara Bascom, a pediatrician married to a lieutenant colonel. Their difference in rank, she said, is not due to discrimination. . . "He's just been in longer than I have."

Bascom said she would like to see women in the military take an advocate's role for military families. And she stressed the need for more resources to role for military families. And she stressed the need for more resources to deal with the problems of military families.

"We have a growing number of families who are coming in from poverty backgrounds and with poor educations. They have enormous need for support services."

In spite of the well-documented problems facing the military, the conference had an underlying tone of optimism.

Said Army wife Tommy Fairweather: "Right now I'm encouraging my daughter to go to West Point."