The U.S. military saw a number of newsworthy events during the past year, from the swearing in of a new president and commander-in-chief to deadly ship collisions in the Pacific that triggered a leadership reorganization of the Navy’s 7th Fleet.
The list, compiled by Military.com Editor Brendan McGarry, highlights 10 stories from 2017 determined to have the most editorial significance.
“This was a dramatic year for the military, as evidenced by a number of stories but most notably by the tragic destroyer collisions in the Pacific,” McGarry said. “More service members died this year in the Pacific than in Afghanistan, and those accidents revealed stunning lapses in training and leadership.”
The top 10 military stories of 2017 are:
1. DEADLY SHIP COLLISIONS ROCK THE NAVY’S SURFACE FLEET
Seventeen sailors were killed this summer when two U.S. Navy destroyers, in separate incidents, collided with commercial vessels in the Pacific. The first occurred June 17, when the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald struck the Philippine-flagged tanker ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan, claiming the lives of seven sailors when compartments flooded. The second incident occurred two months later, on Aug. 21, when the USS John S. McCain hit the Liberian-flagged container ship Alnic MC near the Straits of Malacca, causing the deaths of another 10 sailors. The accidents exposed massive training and leadership problems and resulted in the firing of a number of officials in the 7th Fleet, including the commander, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin.
2. US, NORTH KOREA TENSIONS SKYROCKET AMID NUCLEAR, MISSILE TESTS
North Korea repeatedly rattled the international community this year with a series of ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests that showed major advancements in military technology. The regime of Kim Jong-un in September conducted an underground test of a thermonuclear weapon, or hydrogen bomb, designed for an intercontinental ballistic missile. The yield for the North’s sixth and latest nuclear test was estimated at between 100 kilotons and 300 kilotons — its largest to date and many times the destructive power of the atomic weapons the U.S. dropped on Japan during World War II. The regime in November launched an ICBM that flew for 50 minutes and reached an altitude of more than 4,000 kilometers — the longest and highest flight yet of any such test. The U.S. responded with show-of-force exercises with allies in the region, including South Korea and Japan. The U.S. has also blamed the North for the WannaCry ransomware attack that affected computers around the world in May.
3. BERGDAHL PLEADS GUILTY TO DESERTION, AVOIDS PRISON
In one of the most controversial military court cases in years, Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl in October pleaded guilty to deserting his post in 2009 in Afghanistan. While he was later sentenced to receive a dishonorable discharge and reduction in rank to private, he avoided prison time. Bergdahl, 31, was captured by Taliban forces and spent five years in captivity before being released in 2014 as part of a prisoner exchange involving five Taliban members. His trial included testimony from troops who were wounded during missions to find him. Bergdahl, who was held in a cramped cage and beaten by his captors, testified that he was sorry for the wounds suffered by searchers. The controversy continues as lawmakers press the Army to not award him back pay while his attorney seeks to have him receive a POW medal.
4. US BEATS BACK ISIS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA, RAMPS UP AIRSTRIKES IN AFGHANISTAN
The U.S. military, with partner forces in Iraq and Syria, helped crush the Islamic State’s last strongholds in Iraq and Syria. American troops on the ground worked with Iraqi and Syrian troops to repel ISIS militants from Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. While Pentagon officials have been reluctant to disclose the number of U.S. troops on the ground, the Defense Manpower Data Center recently listed 8,992 American service members in Iraq, 1,720 in Syria and 15,298 in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the U.S. ramped up airstrikes, dropping its biggest non-nuclear bomb on the ISIS Khorasan branch and unleashing the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter to bomb Taliban drug labs. Still, the Taliban control or influence 54 of 407 districts in the country, or 13 percent, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
5. AFTER HIGH-PROFILE RECRUIT DEATH, MARINES CRACK DOWN ON HAZING
The Marine Corps took steps to crack down on hazing following the March 18, 2016, death of 20-year-old Raheel Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American Muslim recruit from Michigan who reportedly leapt from the third floor of a squad bay 11 days after arriving at boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. The family is suing the government for $100 million for his death, claiming “negligence on multiple levels of command,” the Detroit Free Press reported. After Siddiqui’s death, 15 drill instructors and five other senior leaders at the boot camp were removed from their posts. Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, a former drill instructor at Parris Island, was named as a senior drill instructor who slapped Siddiqui and made him conduct physical “incentive training” as punishment in the minutes before his suicide. A military jury in November found Felix guilty of tumbling another Muslim recruit in an industrial dryer in a liquor-fueled hazing session, and abusing and assaulting a dozen other recruits.
6. CHURCH SHOOTING REVEALS DOD’S FAILURE TO DISCLOSE CRIMINAL RECORDS
Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, the man who shot and killed 26 people at a Texas church on Nov. 6, had previously served in the U.S. Air Force but received a bad-conduct discharge after being court-martialed for assaulting his wife and child. Kelley was court-martialed in 2012 for two counts of Article 128 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: assault on his spouse and assault on their child. He received a bad-conduct discharge, confinement for twelve months and a reduction to the grade of E-1. Even so, the Air Force didn’t forward his criminal record to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as required by law. Because the agency wasn’t aware of his criminal past, Kelley was able to buy an assault rifle-style weapon used in the church shooting, described as the deadliest to occur in Texas. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein ordered a review of the case to avoid similar lapses in the future.
7. AIR FORCE GRAPPLES WITH RISING PILOT SHORTAGE
The Air Force’s pilot shortage this year climbed to about 2,000 airmen, as more service members opted for the better pay and steadier schedules offered by the commercial airline industry. With a pilot shortage estimated at about one in 10 — 2,000 out of 20,000 pilots — the service has rolled out new initiatives in an effort to keep flyers in uniform, including more flight incentive pay and aviation bonus programs. But the efforts may not be enough to combat a readiness crisis that leaders blame on a high number of missions being carried out by a disproportionately small force. As a result, the service may try to force pilots to stay in the cockpit. President Donald Trump in September signed an executive order to voluntarily recall up to 1,000 pilots back to active duty. The Air Force says it doesn’t have any immediate plans to resort to such a tactic but nevertheless now has such authority, just in case.
8. CONGRESS CRIMINALIZES MILITARY REVENGE PORN
In the wake of the Marines United scandal, lawmakers in Congress moved swiftly to criminalize so-called revenge porn in the military. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policy for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, calls for court-martial punishment for troops who engage in revenge porn, or the unauthorized sharing or distribution of “an intimate visual image of a private area of another person.” At least five Marines were punished in the wake of a scandal involving a Facebook page, Marines United, whose members reportedly circulated a hard drive filled with compromising photos of female service members. While the private Facebook group had roughly 30,000 members, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said the number of those found to have possibly engaged in prosecutable activity was much lower.
9. TRUMP ANNOUNCES TRANSGENDER BAN, COURTS BLOCK ORDER
President Donald Trump in July surprised even the Pentagon’s top brass when he announced via Twitter a ban on transgender people from serving in the U.S. military. The president tweeted, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow … Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” The order was immediately challenged in the courts, which have so far rejected the administration’s request to delay transgender enlistments. There are between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender troops currently serving on active duty, amounting to between 0.1 percent and 0.5 percent of the 1.3 million-member active component, and between 830 and 4,160 in the Selected Reserve, according to a 2016 study by Rand Corp. Advocacy groups put the estimate at closer to 15,000 transgender troops in the ranks. The Defense Department has said the enlistment of transgender recruits will start Jan. 1.
10. SIG SAUER WINS THE ARMY’S MODULAR HANDGUN SYSTEM CONTRACT
The U.S. Army in January awarded Sig Sauer a contract worth $580 million to make the next service pistol based on the company’s P320 handgun. Sig beat out Glock Inc., FN America and Beretta USA, the maker of the current M9 9mm service pistol, in the competition for the Modular Handgun System, or MHS, program. Glock protested the Army’s decision, but the complaint in June was rejected by the Government Accountability Office, which arbitrates federal contract disputes. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in November began receiving the new XM17 MHS and spent time shooting the new pistol. Weapons officials plan to issue the service’s new sidearm down to the team-leader level.