03/12/2013 12:49 pm ET Updated May 12, 2013

What If Everyone Knew What War Really Feels Like?

Over forty-one years of working with veterans' readjustment issues offers at the least, some perspective on the problems and challenges. That perspective includes my personal war experience in Vietnam. Toward the late '70s as the movies about that war started to come out, Americans got a peek at what some tours were like for voluntary recruits and draftees.

Vietnam was our last war using the draft. Twenty years later we were engaged in Operation Desert Storm using all-volunteer forces. There were a few protests to the Gulf War, but then the war over. In three days.

But we didn't realize that over 175,000 to 250,000 veterans of this war would develop what came to be called Gulf War Syndrome,  marked by lung and neurological problems.  Troops were deployed prior to the outbreak of war, and stayed for at least nine months.  Who can forget the images of those burning oil wells, those plumes of roiling black smoke? Or the questions about whether troops had been exposed to chemical or biological warfare. We tried to innoculate our soldiers to prevent nerve damage, but disccovered too late that the innoculation sometimes caused neurological problems, even within the short time frame.

What's my point? That the dangers of war are not restricted to being shot at. From Vietnam we learned that troops can be traumatized; from the Gulf War we learned that they could be poisoned. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the devastation caused by IED's: serious burn injuries, amputations, and traumatic brain injury.  How much bad news can the American public stand? Not that much. 

After 9/11 when it was determined that there were no WMD's, weapons of mass destruction, the public sort of tuned out.  The war in Afghanistan couldn't end until we got Osama bin Laden. While we waited for that to happen, Americans seemed to lose interest unless a celebrity was killed or some sensational event hit the headlines, like the first green-on-blue attacks, where our soldiers were being killed by the people they were training.  But these headlines tell nothing about the real life experiences, both in the moment and in the aftermath, of a vet exposed to the combat zone.

In his column in USA Today on February 15, Charlie Rangel said that all citizens have a duty to serve their country. This isn't the first time Rangel has suggested that we revive the concept of compulsory national service.  His Universal National Service Act of 2011 died, but he is reintroducing it, this time for men and women, and including forms of national service other than the military, such as hospitals, schools, airports, the Peace Corps, natural disaster responders, etc.

His thinking is that if the stakes were higher and inclusive, if the risk of injury or death were shared across all sectors of the country, perhaps the decision to go to war would be taken differently.

I'm not saying the draft should be reinstated, but I am saying that we need to do something differently. Perhaps if everyone had an equal stake, we wouldn't just change the channel when the news wasn't good.  We'd pay more attention to situations as they rose and maybe our leaders would work harder to find alternatives to armed conflict. Maybe in addition to having fewer wars, we'd have a citizenry that was engaged and vested in the country, having served it.