When Rep. Barbara Boxer returned from the Persian Gulf in January, the California Democrat knew firsthand the wrenching problems that thousands of military parents face.
"I heard the soldiers' stories and I said this is crazy: how could this happen? How could it be that husbands and wives would both be sent to war, leaving their babies potentially parentless?"
Philosophical battle lines have quickly been drawn: On one side is the Pentagon, which says special treatment for parents discriminates against those without children. On the other are some parents and legislators, who say children are at risk unless one parent is kept from battle zones.
The debate has spawned tough questions for which there are no clear answers--yet:
* Do infants suffer ill effects if their mothers are called to active duty 42 days after giving birth? (Military regulations require that mothers be available for deployment at that time.)
* Do toddlers stop thriving when both parents leave for war--even if they are placed with loving guardians?
Some observers say these issues transcend the military; they are distilled versions of questions facing American society as a whole.
They say parents reluctant to go to war experience a higher degree of the same conflict between work and family that civilians feel. It is a conflict that has simmered for years, unresolved, but which now has bubbled to the top because of the Persian Gulf crisis.
Child development expert David Elkind believes some military parents' fears are justified:
"Everything we know . . . indicates that at least one nurturing parent should be readily available to the child.
"There is a great deal of evidence about infants separated from parents, clear data to show that the first three years are most critical in life." If those years are disturbed, severe emotional problems may develop later, says Elkind, a professor at Tufts University in Boston and author of "The Hurried Child.".
Sometimes children will do fine, he says, but problems occur when the parents return: "The child must switch allegiance. He or she has formed an attachment; bonding has occurred, and now he has to bond to someone else.
"The more severe the attachment problems of a baby, the more severe the emotional problems" that baby will likely develop as an adult, he says.
Elkind says the armed services should allow that at least one parent be available for a child.
Dr. Saul Brown, child psychiatrist and director of psychiatry at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, also says parent-child attachment is crucial: "It begins in the first moments of a baby's life, it is extremely sensitive in nature, and babies are much more reactive to the attachment experience than we used to believe."
Babies are extremely sensitive to the touch, smell, feel and voice of the person who cares for them, he says: "Some fathers can fill in quite well, although mothers are usually a bit more sensitive to an infants' needs."
If the mother is gone for more than several weeks, he says, it will be very difficult for her to re-establish bonding with the baby.
And the mother herself will be affected by separation, Brown says. "It can be a delayed reaction, a depression that comes as her feelings catch up with her. The excitement of going to war, for instance, may cover up the reaction for a while.
"But the reality is that she will react, just as her baby will. We see the same things in toddlers. For a few days they act unbothered. In the second or third week they start to fall apart.
"This is reality which stems from research. It is not sentimentality."
Defense Department figures show there are 67,000 single parents (more single fathers than mothers) and about 47,000 couples now on active duty, who have minor children.
The Gulf War is the first prolonged conflict for an all-volunteer armed forces in which, except for combat, American women serve equally with men. And since 1973, when the all-volunteer military was established, female representation in U.S. forces has increased from 2% to about 11%.
A Defense Department spokesman says parental status does not affect military policy. Public affairs officer Maj. Doug Hart says equal opportunity is the core:
"We promote according to abilities, time of service and maturity--not according to race, gender, marital or parental status. We deploy according to job skills needed, not any other consideration. We consider ourselves the greatest equal opportunity employer in the world. To give special consideration to any group, even parents, would be discriminatory."
Even the Defense Department's Committee on Women, which met Feb. 11 to consider parental regulations, endorsed current rules that require single parents and married couples with minor children to serve with their units in the Persian Gulf.
"We've worked tirelessly for equal opportunities for men and women in the service; we would not want those opportunities to erode," explains chairwoman Becky Costantino.
She adds that proposed legislation to change the rules may be intended to help both male and female parents, "but it will mostly affect women." And the long-term effect on women's military careers would be negative if the rules are changed, she says.
This emerging controversy about military children may have profound effects on society at large, some experts predict.
"When this war is over, the broader ideological issues of parenting and women's place in the military will have to be re-evaluated and, I believe, refought," says Barbara Herman, associate professor of philosophy and law at USC.
She says she "cannot think of any good reason why there is no procedure to ensure that one parent will be removed from risk" in families where both parents may go to war. "I don't care which parent it is. But to put children in jeopardy to that degree sounds to me unjustifiable."
It is a complicated issue, she agrees, because it touches equal rights as well as the military's policy--or lack of it--toward children.
The military's emphasis on equality for adults, without worrying how it affects their children, reflects similar attitudes in the civilian world, others say.
Rosanna Hertz, author of "More Equal Than Others," a book about dual-career marriages, recently completed a study on the effects of work on military family life.
She says parenting issues raised by the war are "very complicated because you either want equality of opportunity or you don't want it. You can't have it both ways.
"If you decide that women who have little children don't have to go to war, for example, you are creating a two-caste system."
A solution, she believes, would be a national policy on parenting, and maternity or paternity leaves, as is the case in most other industrial nations.
"This country has never valued its children," says Hertz, an assistant professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. "If we did . . . we would have national policies about child care. We talk a lot about 'the next generation' but we do not invest in it."
Problems in two-career military families are "entirely consistent with the federal government's lack of policy toward parenting and family," says Karen Brodkin Sacks, director of the UCLA Women's Studies program.
"In part, it may be the military's hostility toward women," she says, "but it is punishing men and children as well. People enlist in hopes of getting an education and a decent livelihood. It's a poverty draft rather than a legal draft, and now military parents are made to sacrifice doubly--by both having to go to war. It is shockingly inconsistent with the rhetoric, but totally consistent with official attitudes. We are the most backward industrial society in the world in terms of parental leave and support for raising children."
Cynthia Enloe, chairwoman of government at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and author of "Does Khaki Become You?" agrees:
"It must come as a great surprise to . . . find that the military they joined in order to protect society would in fact violate what they consider the heart of society and of family life: the children."
To protect those children, Rep. Boxer introduced the Military Orphans Prevention bill. The measure would allow single parents, or one of two military parents, to stay out of combat zones. She asked Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to support the legislation.
Cheney didn't answer, but has said elsewhere that it would be "a serious mistake" to change rules.
Boxer wrote again, reminding Cheney that he asked for and received deferment from military service during the Vietnam War because his wife and child needed him. Such draft deferments are no longer available since the military is all-volunteer.
Boxer's letter, to which she has received no written reply, said: "Just as your child needed you, so do the children of these military parents need at least one parent to be out of harm's way."