December 31,2003

Before tearing the first page off the new calendar, let's reflect for a moment on the events that local military families will remember most about 2003:

12. Bob Hope died. A show business icon, Hope endeared himself to generations of military families by performing for deployed troops on ships and stages only miles from combat. Hope died in July at age 100 and so far, no one in Hollywood has risen to his example.

11. We observed the 20th anniversary of the Beirut bombing. The Oct. 23, 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon was perhaps the first large-scale terrorist attack on Americans, killing 241 Marines and sailors. Twenty years later, 1,500 gathered at the memorial at Camp Johnson to reflect and mourn.

10. Time magazine chose the American Soldier as Person of the Year. In a year when the magazine could easily have selected a bold American president, an intense Defense Secretary or a fallen Iraqi leader, it instead featured three service members in uniform. For military families especially, those three are our own.

9. Pentagon offered two-week furloughs, stateside. Beginning the unprecedented CONUS furloughs in September, the Pentagon flew warriors into Baltimore, Atlanta and Dallas airports. Through Operation Hero Miles, the public has donated 356 million frequent flier miles to take service members all the way home.

8. The civic center in Jacksonville inched forward. Proponents aim to convert property along the New River into a 40,000-square foot civic center, a Hilton hotel and possibly a Marine Corps Museum of the Carolinas. Those of us with houses in town hope that property values will skyrocket, if and when this project comes to pass.

7. Congress increased military pay and combat-related entitlements. In January, service members got pay increases of 4.1 percent; some targeted ranks saw up to 6.5 percent increases. The monthly family separation allowance was increased to $250 and imminent danger pay rose to $225 a month.

6. POWs were rescued. In mid-April, U.S. Marines rescued seven Americans that we'd feared were lost forever. Their survival gave us hope in a season when we were starving for it.

5. Saddam Hussein was captured. Likewise, after a deadly summer for coalition troops and peacekeepers in Iraq, we cheered a turning point in the rebuilding effort.

4. Locals showed support. The community wrapped its arms around military families by attending a gathering at the downtown train depot in April. The next day two military wives led the Enduring Family Walk past honking cars on Western Boulevard. Other Enduring walks were held simultaneously across the country. And so we held on, together.

3. President Bush visited Camp Lejeune. "These were sacrifices of a high calling: the defense of our nation and the peace of the world," the President told 20,000 of us. We cheered wildly at his arrival by helicopter, clung to his praise. He inspired us to finish what we'd started.

2. Service members deployed. During the height of combat, more than 30,000 area Marines and sailors were away from home. Suddenly, we cared less about a solid return date than for reassurance that our loved ones would return at all.

1. Service members came home. Whether our heroes arrived by ship, on a bus, or at a hangar; whether we met them in a darkened parking lot or under a steamy summer sky, we knew that this was no ordinary moment, and that we'd conquered one extraordinary year.