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Monti awarded Medal of Honor

Army Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti was awarded the Medal of Honor, marking the second time the nation's highest military honor has been awarded for actions in Afghanistan.

The Raynham, Mass., native was one of four servicemembers killed June 21, 2006, during a mountainside ambush in the northeastern province of Nuristan.

Promoted posthumously, then-Staff Sgt. Monti braved enemy fire three times to rescue a badly wounded unitmate, Pvt. Brian Bradbury. On his last attempt, he was felled.

Members of his unit said in his last moments, he spoke to them: "I've made my peace with God. Tell my family that I love them."

Military profiles journalists

The Pentagon in August fired a controversial Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm after Stars and Stripes revealed the company was profiling reporters in Afghanistan in an attempt to shape war coverage.

Immediately following the initial Aug. 24 story, the military denied rating reporters based on a "positive-negative-neutral" scale developed by The Rendon Group as part of its $1.5 million "news analysis and media assessment" contract with the Defense Department in Afghanistan.

But after the newspaper obtained and published copies of several reporter profiles generated by Rendon that proved the rating system existed and the story was picked up by other news outlets, the DOD swiftly moved to cancel the Rendon contract. Military officials maintained throughout the controversy, however, that the profiling practice did not affect reporters' embed requests.

Little movement on 'don't Ask, don't tell'

Despite campaign promises by President Barack Obama to overturn the military's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy, gay rights advocates saw little progress in 2009 to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the ranks.

Obama spoke out against the policy several times this year, and both House and Senate leaders pledged to pass legislation dumping the ban. But hearings promised in both chambers were delayed until sometime next year, and efforts to convince the White House to sign an executive order overturning the ban without Congress fell flat.

Still, advocates say they're hopeful lawmakers will get rid of the limits on gay troops in the 2011 defense budget bills. Congress will begin debating that in March.

Pakistan's role in Afghan war

This was the year that Pakistan became inextricably linked with the war in Afghanistan.

Recognizing that militants found sanctuary in the country's mostly lawless regions on the Afghan border, President Barack Obama made a commitment early in his presidency to provide $7.5 billion in civilian aid as a "tangible manifestation of broad support for Pakistan in the U.S."

Unspoken was the expectation that Pakistan help with the worsening situation in Afghanistan. The country has since stepped up attacks against militants and quietly allowed the United States to base drone aircraft in the country to attack insurgent camps.

The country has paid dearly for its offensives, however; sometimes spectacular bombings by militants in cities across Pakistan this year have killed or wounded several hundred.

Air Force expands Drone mission

In 2009, the Air Force exponentially increased its drone mission to keep up with the insatiable demand from ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, who request drones more than any other air asset.

The armed Predator and Reaper drones collect intelligence, monitor insurgents and watch over U.S. troops - and sometimes fire on targets. The Obama administration also stepped up the CIA's use of drones in Pakistan this year.

The drones are flown from ground control stations in the United States, mostly at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The pilots and operators are the first commuter warriors, spending their work life in what is essentially a war zone then returning home at the end of the day to family life.

Efforts to combat piracy increase

Piracy has become the funding vehicle of choice for terrorist organizations looking to do business with anyone who has a small skiff and a few semiautomatic weapons.

Nearly three dozen vessels were hijacked by pirates in 2009, with some 600 crewmembers taken hostage. In April, pirates attacked U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama, taking the captain hostage. He was rescued after five days when U.S. Navy snipers opened fire, killing three of the captors.

Nicknames such as "Pirate Alley" and the "Hash Highway" belie the monumental task of patrolling the roughly 1.1 million square miles of water to include the main trouble spots of the Somali Basin and Gulf of Aden. January marked the establishment of multinational Combined Task Force 151 to fight piracy and associated maritime crimes such as drug smuggling and human trafficking.

Processing problems delay new GI Bill benefits

The new post-9/11 GI Bill benefits went into effect this August, but by the end of 2009 the Department of Veterans Affairs still hadn't worked out all the details of the new program.

VA officials received more than 340,000 applications for the new benefits in the last six months of the year, and scrambled to process checks for more than 124,000 students enrolled in classes for the fall 2009 semester. As the fall semester began, more than half still hadn't received their checks. By December, about 20,000 were still waiting for money.

In October, the department issued $3,000 emergency checks to student veterans left in debt because of delays with their tuition and housing payments, which helped cover immediate bills and calmed some of the growing anger of veterans groups over the mishandling of the program.

The department also hired hundreds of new claims processors to try to clear the backlog before the end of the year, but education advocates worry that many of the same processing problems will repeat again in the spring 2010 semester.

Sweeping change in Japan government

On Aug. 30, the Democratic Party of Japan unseated the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled for all but 11 months since 1955. The sweeping change came after some DPJ members promised voters they would renegotiate a security agreement, struck in 2006 after 15 years of talks, that includes moving some 8,000 U.S. Marines off of Okinawa and relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a more remote part of the island.

In mid-December, the Japanese prime minister said it would take his government months to consider alternatives for relocating Futenma, thrusting the yearslong saga even further from resolution despite U.S. insistence that Camp Schwab remains the only viable option.

Possible supremacists in the ranks

Stars and Stripes broke the news that at least 130 members of newsaxon.org, a social networking Web site for white supremacists, had identified themselves as active members of the U.S. military.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog that first found the site, said that despite years of warnings no Defense Department effort has been made to scrub the ranks of such prohibited extremist associations.

A Defense Department directive issued in 1996 is clear: "Military personnel must reject participation in organizations that espouse supremacist causes." However, Army and Defense Department spokesmen said there is no specific policy addressing servicemembers on white supremacist Web sites.

Multiple attempts at murder revealed

A top enlisted sailor in Japan lashed out in August, killing his 12-year-old son and assaulting his wife and teenage daughter before dying in a motorcycle crash. The murder investigation has led to the Philippines, where a woman claiming to be the sailor's mistress says she helped Master Chief Petty Officer John Bench plot multiple murder attempts on his family over the past year. Philippine authorities are searching for an alleged hit-man accomplice, and Navy investigators are still examining Bench and the brutal crimes.

'Juicy bar' crackdown

South Korean "juicy bars" could soon be a little tamer. The bars operate by the dozens outside U.S. military bases, and prostitution is common. Military officials say they will put off-limits only those individual establishments where the imported Philippine bar girls - whose primary job is to talk servicemembers into buying them expensive glasses of juice for their continued company and conversation - are caught selling more than drinks. But Philippine Embassy officials, embarrassed by the demeaning nature of the job - not to mention the prostitution - are considering a proposal that would tighten immigration regulations early in 2010 and ban Filipinas from working in the bars.


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