`WHAT to do with the kids?'' With more and more single parents in the work force, as well as families in which both parents work, the nation is struggling with the problems employees face in balancing job and family responsibilities. The challenges are even harder when the parents' jobs are in the armed forces, and the workplace is a war zone. Thousands of American children, including infants, are temporary ``war orphans'' because their parents are serving in the Gulf. Some of them could become true war orphans. According to the Pentagon, 16,300 single parents and 1,200 military couples with children are stationed with the troops in the Gulf. They have left their children in the care of grandparents, other relatives, or unrelated guardians. The military does not exempt such servicemen and women from hazardous duty. Some critics think it is callous to send these parents off to war - or, to put it another way, to leave military children without any parent. Several bills have been introduced in Congress to exempt single parents or one of the parents in a two-soldier family from duty in a war zone. (Last week the Senate rejected one such proposal sponsored by Sen. John Heinz.) An array of conflicting interests and values come into play on this issue. Take women's role in the military: Women have an important place in the volunteer service, and many are understandably concerned that the creation of a kind of ``mommy track'' would harm the prospects of women in the armed forces. Then there are issues of military readiness and morale. After units have trained hard to develop teamwork and esprit de corps, should such cohesiveness be disrupted on the eve of battle by requiring or permitting the parents of young children to stay home? Is the life of a soldier who happens to be a parent more deserving of protection than the lives of other soldiers? Citing such arguments, plus the fact that all members of today's armed forces are volunteers who knew the risks, the Pentagon opposes parental exemptions. But proponents of parental exemptions insist that this is not just a military issue or a women's issue: It is also a children's issue. Does current policy adequately protect the well-being of children who might be orphaned? With a ground war in the Gulf underway, it is too late to change policy for this conflict. But Congress and the military need to think ahead about a family issue that no one ever dreamed of just a few months ago. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/epar.