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Of all the impressions of the Persian Gulf War, the one that sticks in my mind is that of the young widow and her two small children at Arlington National Cemetery.

The young mother wore a red dress and her arms reached out to her son and daughter as they sat by her husband's graveside. If you looked closely at the young boy, you could see he was cringing, bent almost fetal-like, in grief.Imagine if the tragedy that struck those two children were that both parents had been killed in war. It could have happened had the war not gone well. Thank God it did, but we must learn from this experience.

This is a great country, and our future is our children. We don't need to take the risk of creating orphans whose military mothers and fathers died in combat.

We can protect the children of military parents. We can do it without impairing our volunteer military force and without setting back the important goal of equal rights for men and women in the military.

That is why I introduced the Military Orphans Prevention Act. When I visited our troops in Saudi Arabia before the war began in January, many service men and women approached me with their concerns and fears for young children left at home.

Some of the soldiers I talked to were not parents, but they were concerned about their buddies who were worried sick over what would happen if both parents died in combat.

My bill is designed to protect the children while allowing as much flexibility as possible for the parents and the Pentagon. It would allow a military couple - or a single parent - to obtain a combat exemption for the mother or father, if they want such an exemption. If both parents want to go to combat, they can go.

This bill lets the Pentagon choose which parent it deems more critical to the service and should stay in the combat zone.

To those in the Pentagon who say that this exemption would create a second class in the military, I would have to ask if they mean that a non-combat assignment is not that important to the armed services?

If a couple's or single-parent's family-care plan takes care of their small children, fine. But that is not always the case, as the many calls to congressional offices can attest.

I know of cases where the children were left with baby sitters, or ex-spouses who did not have custody. Children had to move across state lines and live in unfamiliar surroundings with the loneliness and fear that their parents would not come home.

If we're going to continue with a voluntary military service - and I think we should - we need to be understanding of these problems. This is a voluntary military, but these are not voluntary children.

I think it is important now that the war is over in the Persian Gulf to look at ways we can help military parents. Military parents from Long Beach, Calif., to Fort Bragg, N.C., support the bill. In South Bend, Ind., a local petition drive in support of the bill gathered 6,000 signatures.

I am overjoyed that those families who have been so torn apart by the Persian Gulf war will be reunited. I especially feel joy for those children who have faced the loneliness of having both parents - or their only parent - in a combat zone.

I want to tell these children that you have had a voice here in Congress with more than 80 other members of Congress co-sponsoring the Military Orphans Prevention Act. We will continue to pursue this simple, humanitarian policy that won't put you through that nightmare again.

(Rep. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.)