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Iraq improved. Afghanistan deteriorated. And the Pentagon’s top leader stayed the same, even though a Democrat will be moving into the White House.

Though the presidential election drew much of the news focus for the year, military issues both overseas and at home continued to make headlines.

Unlike years past, the news from Iraq took a more positive tone in 2008. By July, the number of U.S. casualties had dropped to just 13, the lowest monthly total since the March 2003 invasion. Experts largely credited the "surge" of U.S. combat troops a year earlier, and soldiers’ tours were cut from 15 months to 12 months as officials began to feel the security gains were solid.

But as Iraq improved, the news out of Afghanistan grew more serious. Attacks and combat deaths there increased. Marine commanders, having transformed Iraq’s once-chaotic Anbar Province, are pushing to move into Afghanistan in large numbers as NATO nations struggle to provide additional troops.

And while the Pentagon began the transition to a new administration — the first party switch during wartime in 40 years — one constant will be Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will remain in the post. Gates, respected by members of both parties, says he felt compelled to help ease the process of changing to a new administration.

The top stories for 2008:

1.Bush announces that soldiers heading to the CENTCOM theater after Aug. 1 will spend 12 months deployed instead of 15.

In April 2007, the Army lengthened deployments in the CENTCOM theater to 15 months to give Army units their full 12 months in between deployments, known as "dwell time."

Troops already downrange said they were happy about the change even though it did not shorten their deployments.

2.Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor and Army Pfc. Ross McGinnis of Knox, Pa., become the third and fourth servicemembers awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in War on Terror.

McGinnis was killed in December 2006 when he used his body to shield a grenade thrown into his Humvee, saving the lives of four other soldiers. Family and friends describe McGinnis as a prankster and showman, but say his true character came through when his fellow servicemembers were threatened.

In April, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor was awarded the honor for heroism during a September 2006 gunbattle in Ramadi, Iraq. Monsoor, a SEAL, used his body to smother a grenade when his unit mates could not get out of a confined space.

3.Defense Secretary Robert Gates fires the Air Force’s top leadership. Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley are asked to resign after an investigation slams the Air Force’s handling of nuclear weapons.

The move comes less than a year after six armed nuclear missiles were accidentally transported from North Dakota to Louisiana, and after investigators announce that fuses for nuclear warheads were mistaken for helicopter parts and accidentally shipped to Taiwan in 2006.

Two weeks later, a missile crew falls asleep while watching nuclear launch code components at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. An investigation determines there was no compromise of classified material, but several officers involved are formally reprimanded for their roles.

By the end of 2008, three units charged with security of nuclear assets — the 341st Missile Wing, the 90th Missile Wing, and the 5th Bomb Wing — all fail their surety inspections.

4.The family of Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was singled out by President Bush for throwing himself on a grenade to save his fellow Marines, tells a California newspaper that he will receive the Navy Cross instead of the Medal of Honor.

After his death, an investigation concluded that Peralta was likely hit by friendly fire.

Later, five experts including retired Lt. Gen. John Vines, the former No. 2 commander in Iraq, determined that Peralta’s actions "did not meet the exacting standards" for the Medal of Honor, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

5.President Bush approves sending an additional 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan to bolster NATO forces and train Afghan security forces. Eventually the number grows to 3,900 Marines.

The move is meant to provide a maneuver force in southern Afghanistan and fill part of commanders’ long unfilled request for 3,400 trainers.

By the end of the year, commanders will say they need three brigade combat teams’ worth of troops and a combat aviation brigade in Afghanistan.

6.Bush signs into law the latest wartime supplemental bill, which includes a $63 billion overhaul of troops’ GI Bill education benefits.

The changes are most sweeping since the college tuition payouts were introduced in 1944. Under the new rules, troops who served at least three years on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, will be eligible for a full four years of tuition payments at any state college, plus another $1,000 in living stipend each month.

Congress also includes options to allow long-serving troops to transfer their education benefits to spouses and children, although service officials still have not finalized rules for that.

7.Asked about a military psychologist’s suggestion that troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder should be eligible for the Purple Heart, Gates says: "It’s an interesting idea. I think it’s clearly something that needs to be looked at."

Defense officials look into the matter, but a leading veterans group tells Stars and Stripes that they disagree with the idea.

"I don’t think people should get the Purple Heart for almost getting wounded," said Joe Palagyi of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

8.Gates announces that troops applying for security clearances will no longer have to say whether they have sought mental health counseling due to military service.

Question 21 on the Office of Personnel Management’s Form 86 asked applicants if they had consulted a mental health professional in the past seven years. Under the change, applicants can answer "no" if they received treatment related to their combat service.

Gates had vowed to "very aggressively" pursue removing the question after the Army inspector general found in 2007 that one reason soldiers were not seeking treatment was that they were afraid doing so could endanger their career.

9.The House of Representatives holds its first hearing in 15 years on the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, with supporters and opponents squaring off on its importance to unit cohesion and morale.

The policy, put in place in 1993, prohibits openly gay or lesbian individuals from serving in the military. Since 1994, 12,342 servicemembers have been discharged from the military under the policy.

Democratic leaders in the House promise the hearing is the first of many to come on the topic, but stop short of promises to alter or overturn the policy.

10.Army officials rescind plans to allow West Point standout Caleb Campbell to play pro football, despite earlier promises that he could pursue a pro career.

In April, Campbell was drafted in the seventh round by the Detriot Lions, who planned to try him out at linebacker in training camp. At the time, Campbell and NFL officials were told he would be exempt from overseas deployments and reassigned to a recruiting post if he earned a spot on the team.

But Defense Department officials reverse that decision, saying it amounts to preferential treatment for sports stars. Campbell is reassigned to a coaching post with the Army football team and will be eligible to join the NFL in 2010.

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