ARLINGTON, Va. — For civilians and servicemembers alike, 2003 will likely be remembered for the war in Iraq.

The Iraq campaign — the second such operation in two years — brought with it a stunning victory, followed by a rocky occupation, both supported by the largest defense budget in modern history.

Saddam Hussein was captured, dragged from his hiding spot in a rat hole, after eight months on the run. But despite intense, out-of-the-spotlight efforts by U.S. troops and special forces, Osama bin Laden remains on the lam, reportedly somewhere in Pakistan.

Over the summer, 130,000 U.S. troops learned how to cope in Iraq’s 130 degree heat. As the year progressed, soldiers learned — often from hard experience — to suspect that “improvised explosive devices” could be hidden in almost anything, from an empty sack to a dead horse.

They sweated, toiled and grew into the most battle-hardened, savvy, experienced military force this nation has known since the Vietnam era, but with one important difference: for this fight, everyone volunteered.

Meanwhile, more than 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan were into the second year of the U.S. military mission there. They endured dust, heat, buried mines and a resurgent Taliban, but their work has borne fruit: At year’s end, Afghans were gathering to adopt a new constitution, rooted in democratic principals.

Also largely beyond the headlines were the servicemembers in Korea, in Germany, in Djibouti, in South America and Australia, and hundreds of other far-flung posts around the world.

What precise effect their presence had this year in preventing grim headlines is difficult to tell.

“It’s a difficult thing to prove a negative,” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a Dec. 23 press conference at the Pentagon.

But just as Rumsfeld added he is “convinced steps were taken” that prevented attacks in the United States, the odds might suggest that U.S. servicemembers who are far from home helped keep “home” safe again this year.

There are no victories without loss, however, and even holding the line has its price. Thousands of men and women lost blood, limbs, sight, hearing and more. The wounded also include those who silently bear the scars that come from experiencing the fears and horrors of war. The effects of these unseen scars are yet to be known.

And then there are the servicemembers, and families, who have paid the ultimate price. As of Sunday, 99 servicemembers have died this year in Afghanistan — 30 from hostile fire, 69 from other causes. In Iraq, 473 servicemembers have died in Iraq, including 328 after May 1, when President Bush declared and end to major combat operations.

“Some families now live with the burden of great sorrow,” the president said in London on Nov. 19. “[We] cannot take the pain away, but these families can know they are not alone. We pray for their strength. We pray for their comfort. And we will never forget the courage of the ones they loved.”

Major events of 2003

Major events of the year affecting American servicemembers and their families:

Jan. 10: North Korea triggers a new round of international tensions when Kim Jong Il announces it will withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Repeated attempts over the year to resolve the matter using international negotiations fail.

Jan. 28: President Bush gives his State of the Union address, stating that Saddam Hussein "is not disarming. To the contrary, he is deceiving," and announcing the United States is ready to attack Iraq, even without a United Nations mandate.

Feb. 21: Pentagon officials announce plans to send 350 U.S. special operations troops, backed by 1,000 Marines, to fight alongside Philippine troops against Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim guerrilla group allegedly tied to al-Qaida. Less than a week later, the plan is scuttled.

Feb. 24: The United States, Great Britain and Spain submit a proposed resolution to the U.N. Security Council concluding that it is time to authorize use of military force in Iraq. France, Germany and Russia submit an informal counterresolution that says weapons inspections should continue, and that "the military option should only be a last resort."

March 3: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, suspected mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is arrested in Pakistan and handed over to U.S. authorities.

March 4: At least 19 people are killed and 114 others injured in a bomb attack on an airport in the southern Philippines.

March 19: Operation Iraqi Freedom begins with a "decapitation attack" in Baghdad specifically aimed at Saddam.

March 21: The major ground and air combat phase in Iraq begins, which Pentagon officials dub "shock and awe."

March 24: U.S. forces encounter strong resistance from Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary fighters in towns such as Nasiriyah and Basra, as well as intense sandstorms.

March 25: After reports of sexual assault at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Air Force Secretary James Roche taps Maj. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr. to replace Lt. Gen. John D. Dallager as the top leader at the Colorado Springs, Colo., institution.

April 1: Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a member of the 507th Maintenance Company, based in Fort Bliss, Texas, that was ambushed March 23 in Iraq, is rescued by special forces near Nasiriyah.

April 9: Baghdad falls to coalition troops. The northern Iraq cities of Kirkuk and Mosul follow within days. Widespread looting begins, particularly in Baghdad.

April 13: Seven American POWs — five other members of Lynch’s unit and two Apache pilots — are rescued in Iraq.

April 25: Secretary of the Army Thomas White abruptly resigns after meeting with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

May 1: Bush declares major combat in Iraq over, but stops short of claiming victory.

July 17: U.S. combat deaths in Iraq reach 147, the same number of soldiers who died from hostile fire in the Persian Gulf War.

July 22: U.S. troops kill Saddam’s sons Odai and Qusai during a six-hour gun battle in Mosul.

Aug. 1: The Army’s new chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, takes his post. Rumsfeld breaks precedent by bringing Schoomaker out of retirement, rather than choosing an acting Army four-star.

Nov. 6: Bush signs the $87.5 billion supplemental defense package he requested for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nov. 9: More than 20 people die in a suicide bombing attack on a housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaida is again the suspect.

Dec. 13: Following an informer’s tip, U.S. troops pull Saddam from an underground hiding place near Tikrit.

Dec. 22: U.S. officials declare a "Code Orange" terrorist threat for the third time in 2003, the second-highest threat on the Homeland Security Department’s five-tier color-coded system. Officials say they are especially worried that terrorists may have infiltrated foreign flight crews.

— Compiled by Lisa Burgess

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