(CNN) – On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the Defense Department would lift the ban on women serving in combat, marking another significant milestone for equality in our nation. Taking this critical step forward to include women in combat strengthens our military by reducing the burden of the disproportionate number of soldiers who are making sacrifices. I sincerely hope that this will spark a national debate about who is fighting our wars and whether all of America can say that we’re sharing the sacrifice.
Since January 2003, at the height of the debate on the possible unilateral strike against Iraq, I have advocated for a reinstatement of the military draft to ensure a more equitable representation of people making sacrifices in wars in which the United States is engaged. In the past decade, more than 2 million soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq war took more than 4,422 lives and wounded some 32,000 in nine years; to date, 2,168 American soldiers have died and 18,215 have been wounded in Afghanistan.
Currently the burden of defending our nation is carried by less than 1% of the American population. The 2.2 million members of the armed forces in active duty, the National Guard and the Reserve have become a virtual military class that makes the ultimate sacrifice of laying down life and limb for our country. As a result of high combat exposure, combined with multiple deployments, we have seen unprecedented incidences of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and veterans committing suicide.
Since we replaced the compulsory military draft with an all-volunteer force in 1973, our nation has been making decisions about wars without worry over who fights them. I sincerely believe that reinstating the draft would compel the American public to have a stake in the wars we fight as a nation. That is why I wrote the Universal National Service Act, known as the “draft” bill, which requires all men and women between ages 18 and 25 to give two years of service in any capacity that promotes our national defense.
I commend President Barack Obama for allowing women and members of the LGBT community to serve our country. I was pleased to hear in the inaugural speech on Monday of his commitment to ending a decade of war and to using diplomacy as a means to promote peace in the world. Inevitably, however, as in the past, there will be times in the future when America will be faced with the question of whether we need to place thousands of our young men and women in harm’s way. When that time comes, I hope all of America will be forced to stop and think twice about it.
By Charles B. Rangel
Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Rep. Charles B. Rangel is the U.S. representative for New York’s 13th Congressional District. He is a decorated Korean War veteran with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rep. Charles B. Rangel
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