One of my closest friends called the other day to share the grim news: Her daughter-in-law, a captain in the Air Force Reserve, had just gotten a letter telling her to get herself ready to be called up.

"But she's a nursing mother," I said.

My friend is a pragmatist. "I don't think they much care about that."

She is right, of course, "they" don't. In the all-volunteer military, you take your chances in return for a lot of opportunities. Her daughter-in-law attended college and law school on ROTC scholarships. She served on active duty and now is in the reserves. In civilian life she is a lawyer, married to a lawyer, and seven months ago she became a mother. And any day now she could become a mother sent off to war.

There are no good numbers on how many mothers are actually in the Persian Gulf, but there are 47,000 military couples there who have children and 67,000 single parents. There are more than 30,000 women in the region. For the first time, America is having to confront the realities of large-scale involvement of women in combat zones, and the implications of separating children from mothers and single parents from their children.

As usual in those debates, there are competing imperatives. Society is generally not well served by separating children from parents. On the other hand, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin L. Powell have stated that removing couples and single parents from the gulf would weaken military capability. Others argue that those who have enjoyed the benefits of military education must honor their commitments.

Invariably the debates descend to the woman-in-a-body-bag argument. This picture is the ultimate weapon in the arsenal of those who don't want women in the military at all, or those who don't want them in combat. The feminist answer is that death is an equal opportunity devastator. The women's movement has with good reason viewed efforts to keep women out of combat as ploys to keep women from advancing in the military.

This concern for military women and mothers on the part of politicians, pediatricians, right-wing women's organizations and the media would be much less suspect if there were an equal concern for the welfare of women in peacetime. But in 1989, for example, more than 5,000 women were slain in this country, 28 percent of them by husbands or boyfriends. More than a million women each year are beaten to the point that they need medical treatment. Rape is the fastest growing category of crime. Yet there is no national debate about this violence against women, and the devastation it causes their children and families.

It is not as if there is nothing that could be done. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) sponsored a bill last year that would stiffen penalties for sex crimes, make dangerous places for women safer with better lighting and camera surveillance, fund spousal abuse units in the legal system and triple funding for battered women's shelters. It passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously but the Senate couldn't make time for a full vote on it.

The carnage against women on the streets and in their homes is treated with stupifying indifference in this country, and that indifference about the welfare of women on Main Street undermines the credibility of this new-found concern for the welfare of women and mothers in a combat zone.

Probably the best way to mediate between the demands of families and the needs of the military is to try to develop compromises that do not create land mines in the progress of the women's movement but that do take into account the welfare of military children. For example, Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation that would keep both parents of children from being sent into a war zone. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) has suggested giving new military parents 18 weeks of parental leave.

American servicewomen in the gulf have been put in an almost untenable position of trying to do their jobs in one of the most repressive cultures on earth. Tens of thousands of them will return to the United States having gone through the most male ritual there is: serving in a combat zone where the line between direct combat and support missions was rapidly blurred.

They will return to the United States with more and better credentials to take on authority and to lead in a male-dominated culture than any group of women have ever had. Some have had to make wrenching adjustments in their personal lives, just as men in the military have had to do. But the long-term ramifications of the deployment of women into the Persian Gulf is going to be profound: They have given a great deal for their country and they will expect a great deal in return.