- US troops and their commander-in-chief continued to make headlines throughout the year from a daring raid that killed ISIS’s leader to a narco-sub seizure to an Army officer who testified in the Trump impeachment hearings.
- Here are 20 powerful images from the biggest news in the US military in 2019.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
US service members and their commander-in-chief continued to make headlines throughout the year.
From the cases of white nationalist sentiment within its ranks, to a daring nighttime raid in Syria, US troops have been on the frontlines of both domestic and foreign conflict.
Here are 20 powerful images that illustrate the biggest news in the US military in 2019:
First US female service member dies in combat against ISIS in Syria.
- Kimber Garland/Department of Veterans Affairs
US Navy Senior Chief Shannon Kent, a 35-year-old native of New York, was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Syria on January 16, 2019. She was the first female US casualty of the year during Operation Inherent Resolve. Three other Americans were killed in the attack.
Kent deployed multiple times to the Middle East during her 15 years career. The military cryptologist was able to speak four languages, including Arabic. Despite being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2016, she continued to serve in the Navy.
She is survived by her husband, former US Army Green Beret Joe Kent; and two children.
Thirty-four US service members were killed in Middle Eastern operations, as of Dec. 2
Trump becomes the first sitting US president to step into North Korea.
- KCNA via REUTERS
On June 30, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stepped across the military demarcation line together at the Demilitarized Zone of North and South Korea.
While the photograph may have appeared to signal a seismic shift in US-North Korean relations, Pyongyang would continue to provoke its neighbors by launching numerous missiles throughout the year.
Trump has dismissed the importance of North Korea’s missile launches by describing them as merely “short-range missiles.”
“We never made an agreement on that. I have no problem,” Trump said in August. “We’ll see what happens. But these are short-range missiles. They’re very standard.”
The lackluster results after the DMZ meeting followed another historical summit between the two leaders in Hanoi, Vietnam, earlier this year, leading some foreign policy experts to wonder whether the Trump administration has a strategy for the North Korean regime.
The border wall battle rages on.
Trump faced challenges in constructing his controversial wall along the US-Mexico border, despite shoring up construction funds after he declared a national emergency.
Trump continued to speak about a “crisis” at the border, which he claims is propelled by illegal immigration, drugs, and violent crime – all of which must be solved by constructing a physical barrier.
Following the record-high 35-day partial government shutdown earlier in the year, Trump accepted Congress’ partial allocation of the $5.7 billion he initially requested for a steel barrier. He declared a national emergency on February 15, and secured the remaining funds for construction.
Trump faced criticism after the funds to pay for the barrier were siphoned from military training operations and projects that have yet to be paid for, including ones from bases that were still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.
The United States Military Academy graduates its largest group of black female cadets.
- Cadet Hallie Pound
The 2019 class of the United States Military Academy at West Point graduated a record-high 32 black female cadets.
“My hope when young black girls see these photos is that they understand that regardless of what life presents you, you have the ability and fortitude to be a force to be reckoned with,” Tiffany Welch-Baker, one of the black cadets, said in May.
The premier US military academy also graduated the highest number of female Hispanic cadets this year, according to a spokesperson.
West Point admitted its first black cadet in 1870, and its first woman in 1976.
White nationalism cases continues to proliferate in the military.
High-profile cases of white nationalism continued to emerge in the US military.
In October, US Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson pleaded guilty to stockpiling unregistered weapons and controlled substances; and allegedly created a hit-list of prominent Democrats, news anchors, and Supreme Court justices. Hasson also allegedly identified himself as a white nationalist and wrote a letter to a neo-Nazi leader in 2017.
Lance Cpl. Mason E. Mead, an infantry assault Marine, was reportedly being kicked out the military with an “other than honorable” discharge after he admitted to “advocating supremacist ideology.”
Iran is caught red-handed.
- US Central Command
On June 13, the US military released videos of what it alleged to be an Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps’ patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from a tanker in the Gulf of Oman after an attack.
A limpet mine is an explosive charge that magnetically attaches itself to the hull of a ship. Iran used similar mines in the late-1980s against tankers during the so-called Tanker War.
Nearly a week after the incident, Iran shot down what it alleged to be an “intruding American spy drone.”
The incidents heightened tensions between the US and Iran, which resulted in the deployment of around 1,000 troops to the Middle East.
“The recent Iranian attacks validate the reliable, credible intelligence we have received on hostile behavior by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region,” then-Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a statement in June.
- US Coast Guard
A July video of a Coast Guardsman boarding a drug trafficking submarine in the Pacific Ocean went viral.
The small-but-operational submarine and its crew of five drug traffickers were about 1,000 miles from the US when it was stopped by the US Coast Guard.
In the video, a Coast Guardsman could be seen jumping onto the moving submarine, and knocking the hatch with a raised fist. The drug traffickers were apprehended without incident.
Once aboard, the Coast Guard discovered 17,000 pounds of cocaine, an estimated worth of $232 million.
‘Arrest these Marines.’
Sixteen US Marines were detained while in formation in Camp Pendleton, San Diego, after being accused of being linked to a human smuggling ring investigation on July 25.
Roughly 40 investigators detained the Marines, who were called in front of the formation “to be recognized,” The San Diego Union-Tribune reported, citing court filings.
“NCIS, arrest these Marines,” Sgt. Maj. Matthew Dorsey reportedly said.
Thirteen Marines were eventually charged for various offenses, including stealing grenades, distributing LSD, and conspiring or aiding the smuggling of undocumented immigrants, according to Marine Corps Times.
‘Salute to America’
In celebration of the Fourth of July, Trump rolled out armored vehicles and fighter jets in the US capitol for his inaugural “Salute to America” parade.
The celebrations spurred some concern due to its cost and optics. According to the Interior Department, the National Parks Service, the Defense Department, and the city of Washington D.C., the event reportedly costed taxpayers $5.35 million.
Critics also claimed the event was an unnecessary display of military might and reminiscent of the parades held by authoritarian regimes.
Trump’s policy pivots in Syria for the oil.
Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of US troops deployed in Syria took many by surprise – before he turned the military around and deployed additional troops to the region.
Following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in October, Trump withdrew US troops away from Syria’s border with Turkey. The withdrawal was widely viewed as one that would all but assure the deaths of Kurdish partners who led the fight against ISIS.
The presence of US troops at the border has been viewed as a deterrent to potential Turkish incursions. Turkey has long claimed the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces are a threat with links to a Turkey-based terrorist group.
After Trump faced fierce backlash against the withdrawal from his Republican allies, he redeployed an additional contingent of US troops and armored vehicles to guard Syrian oil fields.
“What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly,” Trump said on October 27, adding that he wanted to “spread out the wealth.”
“The oil is so valuable for many reasons,” Trump added.
Kurdish casualties mount amid the Turkish offensive.
Reports of numerous tragedies and extrajudicial killings emerged in the wake of the the US withdrawal of Syria and Turkey’s offensive.
Unverified pictures and video footage of the bloodshed have emerged in the wake of the Turkish military campaign. At least a dozen Kurds, including a female politician, were killed in October, according to Foreign Policy. In addition to pressure from Turkey, the Kurds are under assault by the Free Syrian Army, a Turkish-backed militia that is killing civilians and freeing ISIS prisoners who were detained by the Kurds.
The move, prompted by the US’s withdrawal, was widely condemned by current and former US military officials, who alleged the country was abandoning its allies.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, former head of US Central Command, said in an opinion column. “The US worked endlessly to placate our Turkish allies.”
For the first time since his resignation in December 2018, former defense Secretary James Mattis, candidly voiced his disagreements with the commander-in-chief.
Speaking at a charity dinner in New York, the retired four-star Marine Corps general delivered a speech that included several punchy jabs at Trump.
While Mattis mentioned certain disagreements with the White House in his resignation letter and subsequent TV interviews, his responses have always been muted prior to his keynote speech.
“I earned my spurs on the battlefield … Donald Trump earned his spurs from the doctor,” Mattis said in October, referring to Trump’s medical deferment during the Vietnam War.
Mattis joins a number of former senior military officials who have voiced their opposition against Trump.
In a stunning opinion column titled “Our Republic Is Under Attack From the President,” retired US Navy Adm. William McRaven, the Navy SEAL who oversaw the raid that took out al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, alleged that Trump was gutting the country of the “nation’s principles.”
‘It was him.’
- Shealah Craighead/The White House/Handout via REUTERS
In a daring two-hour nighttime raid on October 27, US Special Forces troops in helicopters descended into a compound containing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Al-Baghdadi, who is believed to have been 48 years old, took over the terrorist organization in 2010 after two of his predecessors were killed. He was considered to be one of the US’s most-wanted terrorists and fetched a $25 million bounty.
“Last night was a great night for the United States and for the world,” Trump said in a press conference on October 27. “A brutal killer, one who has caused so much hardship and death, has violently been eliminated. He will never again harm another innocent man, woman, or child. He died like a dog. He died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place.”
Four women and one man inside the compound were considered threats and killed after they “did not respond to commands in Arabic,” US military officials said. No US soldiers were killed during the operation.
The operation was named after Kayla Mueller, an American humanitarian worker who was captured and killed by ISIS militants in Syria.
Conan, the very good military dog.
- White House
One of the outspoken heroes of the al-Baghdadi raid was a Belgian Malinois dog named “Conan.”
The dog is named after comedian Conan O’Brien, according to a Newsweek report.
Although the details of the dog, much like his special forces handlers, remains a secret, Trump and military officials revealed some information about its role in the raid.
“He reached the end of the tunnel, as our dogs chased him down,” Trump said, referring to Baghdadi, who detonated an explosive vest killing himself and two children.
Pentagon officials said the dog was injured after touching some exposed electrical wires while chasing Baghdadi. Conan has conducted over 50 combat missions.
Medals of Honor
In 2019, Trump awarded Medals of Honor, the country’s highest military award, to three US soldiers.
The recipients included Staff. Sgt. Travis Atkins of the 10th Mountain Division; Staff Sgt. David Bellavia of the 1st Infantry Division; and Master Sgt. Matthew Williams of the 3rd Special Forces Group.
Bellavia became the first living Iraq War veteran to receive the Medal of Honor.
In October, 46 medal recipients met in Tampa, Florida, for a dinner – the largest such gathering since the 1970s, according to The Military Times.
Seven newly-elected Democratic lawmakers who served in the military and intelligence agencies go on the offensive.
Seven freshman Democrats who previously served in the US military or with intelligence agencies grew in notoriety and went on the offensive against Trump.
Rep. Gil Cisneros of California, a former naval officer; Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger; Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, a former Air Force officer; Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, a former naval officer; Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, a former Navy helicopter pilot; Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a former CIA analyst; and Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, a former CIA officer, wrote an opinion column published in The Washington Post and described an anonymous whistleblower’s allegations against Trump as “unprecedented.”
The allegations, made by a whistleblower in the US intelligence community, centered around Trump’s controversial communications with Ukraine and has since prompted the House’s impeachment inquiry.
“Our lives have been defined by national service,” the Democrats said in the article. “We are not career politicians.”
“We have devoted our lives to the service and security of our country, and throughout our careers, we have sworn oaths to defend the Constitution of the United States many times over,” they added. “Now, we join as a unified group to uphold that oath as we enter uncharted waters and face unprecedented allegations against President Trump.”
Some of the Democrats, such as Rep. Sherrill, have face significant blowback for their push to launch the impeachment inquiry in their home districts.
‘Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.’
On November 19, US Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official, testified in a public hearing about what he heard during Trump’s controversial phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Vindman, a top expert on Ukraine who also received a Purple Heart after sustaining injuries from a bomb blast in Iraq, was criticized by conservative media personalities and Republican lawmakers for his testimony while wearing his military uniform.
At one point during the hearing, Vindman corrected Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
“Mr. Vindman, you testified in your deposition that you did not know the whistleblower, correct?” Nunes asked.
“Ranking Member, it’s Lt. Col. Vindman, please,” Vindman said.
Trump’s presidential pardons.
- Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
On November 15, Trump overruled his top military officials and made the unprecedented decision to pardon or reinstate three US service members who were either convicted or were facing trial of war crimes.
“For more than two hundred years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country,” the White House said in a statement. “These actions are in keeping with this long history.”
Trump signed an executive order to grant clemency to US Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who was convicted of ordering soldiers to engage three unarmed Afghan men on a motorcycle, killing two of them in July 2012. Lorance served six years of his 19-year sentence.
Trump also signed an executive order to grant clemency to US Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, whose trial has yet to begin. Golsteyn stands accused of killing an unarmed Afghan man in 2010, and later disposing the body in a trash pit.
US Navy Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was demoted after a military trial found him guilty of posing in a picture with the corpse of an ISIS militant, had his rank reinstated to chief petty officer by Trump. Gallagher was accused of pre-mediated and attempted murder in the stabbing of an ISIS fighter and an alleged shooting of two people in Iraq in 2017. Gallagher was acquitted on both counts, but was found guilty in the lesser charge of posing with a corpse in a photograph.
The executive decision eventually resulted in the resignation of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who claimed Trump “has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military.”
“Americans need to know that 99.9% of our uniformed members always have, always are, and always will make the right decision,” Spencer said in an opinion column published in The Washington Post. “Our allies need to know that we remain a force for good, and to please bear with us as we move through this moment in time.”
Naval Air Station Pensacola shooting.
Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old Saudi Royal Air Force trainee, shot and killed three US Navy sailors at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola on December 6, 2019.
Alshamrani was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy responding to the incident.
Law enforcement agencies and Saudi officials are investigating the motive and the moments leading up to the shooting, which included a dinner party Alshamrani hosted, where he and his guests watched mass shooting videos, according to the Associated Press. One of the party guests reportedly videotaped the building during the shooting, a source said.
Around 850 Saudis were being trained in the US by the Defense Department as of December. Following the shooting, around 300 Saudi aviation students were grounded due to safety concerns.
Hand gestures at the 120th annual Army-Navy football game.
- CBS News
Several West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen were spotted making controversial hand gestures during a live broadcast of the 120th annual Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia on December 14.
The military students flashed an “OK,” a common hand gesture adopted by some in the far-right; some observers accused the students of being sympathetic to white supremacy while others attributed it to a juvenile game.
The Anti-Defamation League considers the hand signal as being used “by a variety of figures on the far right, including some well-known white supremacists,” but adds that the gesture “is a nearly universal hand gesture and most usage of it is completely innocuous.”
The Navy Midshipmen (10-2) defeated the Army’s Black Knights (5-8), 31 to 7.