What is to be made of the Pentagon's hard-heartedness toward the children of married couples and single parents within its own ranks?

The stories so far have focused mainly on women. Two reservists in my state, for example, both of whose husbands are already serving in the Persian Gulf, recently received call-up notices just hours before giving birth. They are patriotic women, but they are also, now, parents who want to care for their babies. But as a matter of policy, the military has judged these children's need for a parent to be secondary to its own need for the parents' services.

This is simply the most dramatic example of another emerging symbol of the Gulf war: mothers being torn from their young children. But this is not a "women's" or "mothers' " issue; it is a children's issue. We may countenance the parents' pain, because they volunteered for the military, with all that that implies. But their children did not volunteer, and it's their plight we must address.

If not, there is even worse symbolism ahead: American children being orphaned by an outmoded Pentagon personnel policy; an Uncle Sam already talking about how to rebuild Iraq, but whose heart turns to stone when confronted with the pain of American kids.

It is an avoidable trauma. The Pentagon already allows one parent to leave a war zone if the other has been killed in action. Against an opponent armed with biological and chemical weapons and the clear will to use them, however, waiting until one parent is dead may be too late.

That's why I have proposed that the Pentagon simply update its policy to recognize the new realities of the battlefield by allowing one parent or a single parent with sole custody of his or her child to seek reassignment somewhere other than in the war zone.

The Pentagon has objected to this suggestion on several counts: that volunteers accepted their obligations willingly; that my proposal treats parents as "second-class citizens"; and that it will seriously hamper Operation Desert Storm. Let's consider these arguments in reverse order:

Impact on Desert Storm: According to the latest figures supplied by the Pentagon, 65,982 single parents and 70,456 married couples -- 46,688 with children -- now serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. Some 1,000 of those married couples may be in the Gulf, about half of whom may have children. The Pentagon has yet to respond to my inquiry as to how many single parents with sole custody of their children are in the Gulf.

The best estimate is that my legislation would apply to fewer than 2,000 people, or less than one-half of one percent of our forces in the Gulf. Some of these may not opt out of the war zone; others may be kept in place if removing them would truly represent a hazard to their units. But the bottom line is that this represents at worst a minor personnel shuffle.

Impact on Career Military Personnel: The contention that my bill will create a "mommy and daddy track" for members of the career military is specious. The right to opt out of the war zone would be optional, not obligatory, like the prohibition on women serving in combat positions.

If the military is implying that it would derail someone's career for taking advantage of that right (one wonders if it would do the same to a soldier exercising the existing right to leave a war zone after the death of a spouse), then isn't it more civilized at least to offer parents the choice?

Most of the soldier-parents caught in this predicament are not careerists. In fact, most of the people who have contacted my office are just the opposite: they had opted to devote time to their children and were on their way out of the military when they were called up.

Implications of Volunteerism: As I have noted, it is not the parents we should help, but their children. But it is also questionable whether an 18-year-old tantalized by offers of tuition money has any inkling of what he or she is giving up in "volunteering" to leave children yet to be born behind.

Our righteous insistence that "a deal is a deal" is disturbingly reminiscent of the story of Rumpelstiltskin, the dwarf in German folklore who exacts a terrible price for helping a desperate young woman -- her first-born child.

Rumpelstiltskin's fate (he tears himself apart) offers a singular warning to a military that must worry about how its behavior in this war will affect its ability to recruit for the next. If the Pentagon remains inflexible on this point, not just single parents and married couples, but all variety of individuals horrified by tales of "Gulf orphans" will shy away from military service.

The writer is a Republican senator from Pennsylvania.