FORT DEVENS, Mass. -Bonnie Post is a working mother-one whose efficient juggling of professional and family responsibilities amazes her neighbors. In addition to being the mother of two toddlers, Post, 26, is a soldier: First Lt. Bonnie M. Post, Company Commander for about 280 men and women in the Second Battalion of the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts. The job has no exact parallel in the civilian world, says Post. "I'm responsible for 280 people 24 hours a day-what they do on duty and what they do off duty."

Richard Post, Bonnie's husband, is also an Army officer, studying for a degree at the Harvard Business School. This summer Rick is spending his days doing research for business school projects and caring for Michael, 2, and Jeffrey, 16 months. Late one afternoon, Rick discussed how he and Bonnie manage their multiple roles, interrupting himself to fill numerous requests for juice, locate misplaced toys and generally cope with his sons' post-nap crankiness.

Bonnie and Rick both plan to make careers of the Army but they will do it together or not at all. "If one of us gets the urge to get out, we're likely to both get out," Rick explains. Later, Bonnie emphasizes this point on her own: there is no way she is willing to become a dependent military wife.

The sight of a two-year-old helping mommy pull off her combat boots at the end of a long day symbolizes a growing trend. The role of the family in military life has become increasingly complex over the last decade. Since the institution of the all-volunteer force in 1972, and the subsequent expansion of women's role in the services, the demographic profile of the military-and of the military family-has radically changed.

The presence of women in the armed services has increased dramatically in the past ten years, from 1.4 percent in 1970 to nearly nine percent today. As women joined the armed forces, they pressed for equal treatment for their dependents. Before 1969, women with children were not allowed to join the military, and not until 1973 were dependent benefits made comparable for male and female service members. Only for the past five years have pregnant women been allowed to remain in the military.

The traditional military family, consisting of a serviceman husband and a homemaker-wife who organizes family life for the benefit of the military, has become the exception rather than the rule. Service-members now arrange their private lives in a variety of ways. Soldier couples like Rick and Bonnie Post are increasingly common in the Army; about 26,000 soldiers are married to each other. Single parents with custody also have become an important category: there are now about 37,000 sole parents in the military with custody of their children. And, according to a recent survey, nearly ten percent of the Army's enlisted women are pregnant at any one time.

Such changes have presented Pentagon policy makers with a set of family-related issues unimagined in the days of the Old Army-sole parents require extensive childcare arrangements. Soldier-couples wish to be assigned together. Pregnant soldiers may find certain assignments physically too taxing and not be "deployable" in the event of war.

Confronted with these and other problems of the all-volunteer force, field commanders have begun to question the impact of women in the military on the nation's combat readiness. The Army recently announced a major review of current policies governing women in its ranks. Until it is completed later this year, the Army will level off its recruitment of women and suspend its goal of 12 percent women by 1985. Among other issues, the Women in the Army Policy Review Group will address the potential conflict between family responsibilities and the military mission.

The Army's announcement aroused concern among those who fear loss of the gains women have made in the military. Some observers suspect a hidden agenda in the reassessment: a desire to return to a peacetime draft. That is the view held by Jeanne M. Holm, a retired Air Force general who is a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. If the recruitment of women were limited, the volunteer Army might have trouble filling its needs, and that could open the door to a reinstatement of the draft, according to Holm.

She is impatient with the usual litany of military women's problems. " It's a bum rap, " she says. "Men get VD; men go AWOL; men get into fights. The military has learned to deal with these as personnel problems that can be solved. But military leaders aren't used to women's problems and there is a tendency to see them as insoluble. The military must realize that it must deal as effectively with women's problems as it has with men's problems if it wants to have an effective force. "

The possibility that the Army might backtrack on the liberalization that made it possible for her to be both a solider and a mother disturbs Bonnie Post. Like all soldier couples with children, the Posts are considered sole parents under Army guidelines. Several months ago, when an article appeared in the Army Times announcing that the Department of Defense was considering a proposal that would require all sole parents to resign from the military, Bonnie Post was outraged. "It's absolutely ridiculous," she says, "to talk about gettinig rid of a person who is devoted to the military and is a good troop and just happens to be a sole parent.... People I talked to felt so frustrated, they said, 'Let them just try and do it!' They'll see so many civil actions down on top of them that it will make fools of everyone who said sole parents aren't serious about their jobs."

The impact of "in-service parents" has been a growing concern in the Army for several years. In 1978, commanders were given authority to counsel soldiers with children on possible conflicts with the professional mission. In those cases when servicemembers' parental responsibilities were judged to interfere with military duties, they could be involuntarily discharged. The Army guarantees no special privileges for parents; they must be available for assignment on the same basis as any other soldiers. Enlisted personnel and junior officers who are classified as sole parents are required to draw up a "dependent care plan" which designates who will care for their children in the event of their absence. These plans may rival battle plans in their logistical complexity. They require parents to prepare for a host of contingencies: year-long assignments to a location where dependents are barred, short term military alerts, and full-scale war.

Arrangements must be made to deliver the child to its caretaker when the parent is called on short notice. And if the family is stationed overseas, plans must be formulated for the child's safe evacuation in the event of war, and his delivery to the designated guardian in the United States. All of these plans must be backed up by medical release forms and powers of attorney authorizing the guardian to care for the child.

Each servicemember's plan must be approved by a military counselor. Karen Padgett once served as such a counselor, and that stint, along with her own experience of trying to combine an Army career and motherhood, has convinced her that sole parents have no place in the Army. Nine years after joining the Army and six months after having her first child, Lt. Padgett has decided to leave active duty. "I have very definite ideas about the responsibilities of military members," she says. "I'm not living up to my own expectations, and that's why I'm getting out. When people come into the Army they take an oath and what it says is that 'I'll defend the country to death if I have to.' Along with that oath come a slew of responsibilities. You have to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for anything that comes up." Most sole parents, Karen Padgett believes, cannot keep that commitment.

Her own problems, Karen points out, are not nearly as great as those of many military parents. Because she and her husband are officers, they can afford to pay for childcare if they can find it. The majority of sole parents in the Army are in the enlisted ranks, and expensive off-hours childcare represents a financial burden.

For Gary and Barbara Fell, both sergeants, their immediate childcare problems have been solved by a friendly neighbor. She cares for 16-month-old Melody starting at 5:30 am when Barbara and Gary leave for work. (Although many people at Ft. Devens work a shift that begins at 6 am, the childcare center does not open until 7:30.) Nevertheless, they reluctantly have come to the conclusion that Barbara will not reenlist when her term is up next month. The Army makes no auarantees that married couples will be assigned to the same part of the world and as Gary says, "If we both stayed in, I could be sent to Germany and Barbara could go to Japan." Already they have been separated for a year, while Barbara was pregnant with Melody.

Such separations are an inevitable part of married life in the military, whether one or both partners are service members. But for the Fells, the possibility of future separations, together with the added burden of trying to arrange Melody's care around two military schedules ultimately proved too difficult. Better support services for military parents would have made a difference, the Fells believe.

Military leaders-and Congress-have been reluctant to make expanded childcare a priority. The underlying assumption is still that every family has a stay-at-home custodial parent, and that that parent is the mother. Childcare services have therefore not been regarded as a military matter. But even if the military reduces the percentage of women in its ranks, the issue of childcare will not go away. At least two-thirds of the single parents in the military are men. In addition, more than half of the wives of soldiers now work outside the home.

Jeanne Holm and others believe that around-the-clock childcare facilities are the answer. "You hear that there's no money for that," she says, "but the services manage to get money for a lot of other things that are a lot less relevant to the military mission, like hobby shops and bowling alleys." Given the problem of attracting and retaining qualified personnel, a number of experts on the military family and social policy have called for a reexamination of the role of family life within the military sphere. According to these observers, it may prove more costly in the long run to base policy decisions on outmoded assumptions regarding the family. As Edna Hunter and D. Stephen Nice state in their book, Children Qf Military Families, "There is a dollar payoff if conflicts [between the family and the military organization] can be attenuated or eliminated."