Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) appealed to Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney yesterday to remember his 1966 draft deferment as a young father and support legislation that would allow some military parents to win exemptions from assignment to the Persian Gulf.

"Just as your child needed you, so do the children of military parents need at least one of them to be out of harm's way," the northern California liberal told Cheney in a letter released yesterday.

Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have opposed what Boxer calls "the military orphans' prevention bill." It would allow military parents who are single and those who have a military spouse assigned to a combat zone to seek waivers from assignment to the area.

Cheney and Powell contend the Boxer measure would be "a serious mistake" and note that military parents are volunteers who accepted the possibility of combat when they took their jobs. "That obligation and understanding is held equally by the single parent and military couples serving around the world, including in the Desert Storm theater," they said in a letter opposing the bill.

"Your position, frankly, comes as a surprise to me, based on the public record of your military deferments during the Vietnam war," Boxer told Cheney in her letter. ". . . You were exempted from military service because you were the support of your family and obviously felt that your wife and soon-to-be-born child needed you."

Cheney was in college and graduate school during the Vietnam conflict and was not subject to the draft because of exemptions as a student and later as a prospective father. He said during his Senate confirmation hearings in 1989 he would have served if called. "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service," he said.

Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams declined to comment directly on the Boxer letter last night, saying Cheney had not seen it.

But he said "there's one obvious difference" between conditions today and those in the 1960s when Cheney received deferments.

"In Vietnam there was a draft," Williams said. "And, if you got a deferment from the draft, it meant the government said you shouldn't be forced into the military, if you are the head of a house. It's the same today. These people are volunteers. The government did not force them into the military."

Boxer said her bill would allow the military to add additional time to the obligation of any parent who took the combat exemption and would allow the military -- not the parents -- to decide which parent could take the exemption. "It's pro-family, pro-children and pro-military," she said.

A member of the House Armed Services Commitee, Boxer frequently has tangled with Pentagon officials, usually over the size of defense spending. In 1984, she won wide attention with her charges that the Air Force had paid $7,622 for coffee pots used on some aircraft.

Boxer said she learned of Cheney's deferments from his confirmation hearings and she applauded him for staying with his family. "I'm trying to save some kids here," she said.