The call came at 4 a.m. Army Spec. 4 Greg Akers groggily answered the phone and heard a voice telling him he had one hour to get into uniform, pack his gear and report to his base for two weeks of practicing for war.
But before he could go off and do his duty as a soldier that summer morning in Hawaii, he had to do some fancy footwork as a father. Akers is separated from his wife, and their 5-year-old son is in his care. He woke up a neighbor who agreed to receive the bundle of tousle-headed, half-asleep boy in the pre-dawn hush and look after him until the field maneuvers ended.
"What are you supposed to do? It was tough," he said last week as he recalled the scramble. "But they warn you."
For Akers and for growing numbers of others in the U.S. armed services, the rough and ready life of the warrior is intertwined more tightly than ever with the tender concerns of diapers and day care.
The Army, for example, has 27,000 single parents among enlisted personnel and officers, more than five-sixths of them fathers. Another 27,000 Army personnel are married to each other or to members of other uniformed services. They make up only a fraction, small but growing, of the total force.
The majority of military couples reflect changes in the larger society, where more than half the women work, and parents must juggle the conflicting demands of job and family.
The difference is that in the military world, in war and in peace, morally and legally, the job is supposed to come first.
The military attitude toward soldiers with children is, "It's your problem; work it out," according to parents and officials alike. In practice, not every soldier is as lucky as Akers, with his helpful neighbors.
Military observers cite stories like this one by Army First Sgt. Glenn Aquinaldo about his experiences while stationed in West Germany:
"When we have those alerts at 2 and 3 a.m., I've had soldiers show up in my office with a child and say, 'First Sergeant, what do I do?'" Aquinaldo is a widower with two children. "The compasssion is there. I can't just order the guy to go to the field anyway."
Not all commanders respond that way. "It can really get nasty," he said. "I've seen some of them tell soldiers, 'I don't care what you do, get rid of that kid.'"
The subject comes up increasingly in discussions about the nation's military readiness. Army officials have listed it as one of several growing concerns among field commanders, but mainly as it relates to the new role of women in the military. The top brass have temporarily halted the rapid influx of women into the services while they reassess the impact.
Army single parents are required to fill out forms stating what plans they have made for care of their children if they are mobilized. "It looks good on paper," said Maj. Gen. Robert Lewis (Sam) Wtzel, who is in charge of the Army's review of policies toward women.
"But you hear stories about women who say, 'Well, if it really happens, I'm going to stay with my child.'" There is a feeling that women are tied more strongly to their children, and find it more difficult than men to leave them, he said.
Military leaders traditionally have treated children as a woman's problem. Mothers stayed home with the kids. Wives worked as volunteers in the post nurseries. But these days, according to Wetzel, even among the wives of soldiers with preschoolers, age 3 to 5, an estimated 50 percent are working.
The changes have registered with the leadership only gradually. "We conducted an investigation in the mid-'70s and found, to our horror, that what had once been a short-term drop-off center while Mom did the shopping, and was usually a rundown, dilapidated facility, had become a place where some children were spending the whole day, five days a week," said Col. George R. Iverson, director of the Army's community support programs.
The services, led by the Air Force, have begun to hire child-care specialists and to upgrade child-care programs. But, according to Beverly Schmalzreid, who heads the Air Force family activities program, "We estimate we serve only about 10 to 15 percent of the children who need full-time day care."
Because military parents lack the freedom of civilian life, they need care that is "more than equitable," she said.
For example, in the civilian world, more than 50 percent of child care is provided by relatives. But because of frequent far-flung reassignments, military parents often "don't have the option of Grandma's house."
Cramped, inferior child care facilities are a particular problem for families stationed in West Germany, according to several officials. There have been reports of unregulated, makeshift "stairwell" nurseries, in apartment buildings, set up for children of soldiers who have no other choice.
Debate on the subject has only recently reached the top echelons of the services, according to Ann O'Keefe, who heads the Navy's family support program.
The main questions, she said, are, "Should the military provide child care? Is it an appropriate benefit in the same category as medical care, commissaries and the like? And second, should women need child care? Or should they be home taking care of the kids?There is an element in society that still insists on this."
Congressional debate on the matter so far has focused only on service requests for more construction money, officials said, largely without success. Members of Congress are reluctant to admit that child care is a military matter, according to some critics.
It is an attitude of the sort reflected in the traditional prohibition against officers in uniform pushing a baby carriage, or carrying an umbrella (female officers now may carry one), and also in the military's reluctance to buy underwear for women, according to Kathleen Carpenter, a lawyer who was assistant secretary of defense for equal employment opportunity in the Carter administration.
"They used to say there wasn't enough in supply, or that it took too long to order. And that was true up to a point.But, let's face it, the military just didn't want to buy panties. It's 'unmilitary.'
"The irony of it is that this attitude [toward child care] is so in contrast to the true values they are fighting for."
The operating costs for the military child care centers are paid for out of fees charged soldier-parents. And they still tend to be lumped under headings such as Morale, Welfare and Recreation in the military flow charts, along with such items as bowling alleys.
"It's strange to me that we have so much difficulty getting money for day-care centers when we can get it for gymnasiums, sports teams that travel all over the world, swimming pools and golf courses," said Maj. Gen. Jeanne M. Holm (USAF Ret.).
Part of the blame is laid on misunderstandings about the nature of the service, some of it supplied by the recruiter whose job is to get people into the service and, as Iverson put it, "the last thing on his mind is to tell [a recruit], 'if you ever have kids, we ain't gonna take care of 'em.'"
"They'll tell any kind of lies to get you in," said Spec. 4 Anita Smith, 30, of the Military Police who is also a wife and mother. "My recruiter promised me I'd get Fort McPherson [Georgia] and the orders came and here I am." She is stationed at Fort Meyer and lives in an apartment in Falls Church. "My husband is still in Georgia."
Her 11-year-old daughter, Terria, says it's "a lot of fun" to have a mother who wears a uniform and keeps strange hours on patrol. But for Smith, who may work from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. one week and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. the next, who works seven days in a row and then has two days off, of which one is taken up with training, cleaning weapons and the like, it isn't so much fun.
When Terria is not in school, neighbors and one close friend help look after her, Smith said. "If I'd known how MPs have to work," she said with a rueful grin, "I believe I'd have gone into something else."
Things are easier these days for Spec. Akers who, except for occasional night duty, keeps steady hours as a supply clerk at Fort Meyer, he said. He has custody of his son, now 7, only during the summer. He hires a baby sitter to go to his suburban apartment while he is working.
Army Staff Sgt. Denise Keeney, 27, looks at the subject from both sides. Unmarried, she is the mother of a 6-month-old daughter, Kisha Nicole, and she also works in what is called the "Compassionate Review Branch," which handles requests for transfers from parents and other military people with personal problems.
Child care difficulties are not on the list of automatically acceptable reasons for granting transfers. "We get requests from parents every day, but we have to say, 'Sorry Charlie.'"
She has tried hard since she became preganant to fight a military stereotype of soldier-mothers as "a bunch of cry babies" who are late for formations and can't pull this or that duty because of a child, she said.
For a time, she was driving two hours a day to and from the babysitter's house, even though she lived only a 10-minute roundtrip from her office in Alexandria. She recently found a sitter closer to home.
She pays nearly $200 out of her monthly $900 (soon to be $1,100) take-home pay for the sitter's services during working hours only.
First Sgt. Aquinaldo's two children, at ages 9 and 12, "pretty well take care of themselves," he said.
Then, too, rank does have its privileges. "I don't work for anyone. Everyone works for the first sergeant," he smiled. "My job, when I have a problem at home, I just say, 'Hey, I'm going home.'