John Daniel Hart
Private First Class, United States Army
IMMEDIATE RELEASE October 20, 2003
DoD Identifies Army Casualties
The Department of Defense announced today the death of two soldiers who were supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both soldiers were killed in action on October 18, 2003, in Taza, Iraq, when enemy forces ambushed their patrol using rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire. Killed were:
First Lieutenant David R. Bernstein, 24, of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania
Private First Class John D. Hart, 20, of Bedford, Massachusetts
The soldiers were assigned to 1st Battalion (Airborne), 508th Infantry Regiment, 173rd Infantry Brigade, Camp Ederle, Italy.
The incident is under investigation.
Iraq death spurs push for Humvee armor
By Ross Kerber
Courtesy of the Boston Globe
8 March 2004
In the days before his death, Private First Class John D. Hart called his father to tell him how unsafe he felt riding around Iraq in a Humvee that lacked bulletproof shielding or even metal doors.
It would be the last conversation Brian T. Hart would have with his 20-year-old son. On October 18, 2004, near Kirkuk, Saddam Hussein loyalists ambushed his son's Army convoy, killing two. A hail of bullets felled the Bedford High School graduate while he fought from his Humvee.
"When he died, all his ammunition had been spent," the unit commander wrote in a letter to Hart's parents. "Your son gave everything he had for the safety of others. . . . As a commander, I struggle to find words that adequately capture the depth to which we honor Private First Class Hart."
For Brian Hart, a 44-year-old Bedford businessman, his only son's last words have come to haunt him, especially after learning that other families who lost loved ones in Humvee attacks had complained to the Pentagon about the lack of armor in vehicles.
In fact, an average sport utility vehicle found on US roads provides more protection than Hart's Humvee. "He would have been better off in a Toyota Highlander," the father said.
Turning grief into action, Hart cobbled together a loose network of soldiers, their relatives, politicians, and defense contractors to pressure the military to beef up its Humvees. Since his son's death, Hart has seen results: Since January, the Marine Corps has ordered $9 million worth of bulletproof Humvee door panels from Foster-Miller Inc. of Waltham, and last week the Army said it would double its order of heavily armored Humvees from its contractor.
More Humvees in Iraq still need extra protection, but Hart's headway is remarkable for how quickly he has navigated the byzantine military-procurement system. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, whom Hart enlisted in his cause, believes the father's success can come only from a parent who "feels a desperate sense of loss that he doesn't want it to happen to another parent."
Most versions of the military transport known as the Humvee, short for High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, use body panels made from thin aluminum or fiberglass. That reduces weight but stops few bullets.
Military planners thought tanks or armored personnel carriers would be used for combat patrols. But there are not enough to go around in Iraq, where American troops drive more than 10,000 Humvees, according to the Army.
Last spring, the Army sent more than 500 "up-armored" Humvees made by Armor Holdings Inc.'s O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt unit in Fairfield, Ohio. These vehicles add about 3,800 pounds of bulletproof windshields and steel plating to the 6,000-pound Humvee made by AM General LLC of South Bend, Indiana. Other Humvees are reinforced with lighter, add-on steel armor kits.
The protection became more valuable last summer, as the guerrilla warfare began. Patrols faced more attacks and land mines, making reinforced vehicles critical.
How they would get more, quickly, was unclear, since the Pentagon's original 2005 budget request included 818 up-armored Humvees. An unarmored Humvee costs about $75,000, while an armored one costs about twice as much. Of the total number of Humvees in Iraq, just over 2,000 are fully armored, according to an Army tally, about half of what it says it needs.
Designers at Foster-Miller, a closely held engineering company, proposed a quick fix: use armor panels made from ceramic and Kevlar that could be attached to Humvee doors with Velcro. The idea is less unusual than it sounds. Since the early 1990s, the company has used fabric strips made or designed by Velcro USA Inc. of Manchester, N.H., to attach similar panels inside the cockpits of military transport planes.
While the Army tested Foster-Miller's product last fall, the service still has not ordered any. Other companies that proposed similar add-on armor kits complained Army officials were not interested.
The Army acknowledges it has been slow to fortify its Humvees, but says it is moving as fast as it can. Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee told a Senate Armed Services Committee last week that when US troops first arrived in Iraq last spring, "there wasn't a feeling that all Humvees should be up-armored," partly because the extra weight slowed them. By June, the Army saw that its Humvees needed more protection from the flood of land mines.
"We realize that all soldiers were being exposed to these kinds of attacks and that convoys, in particular, were exposed," Brownlee said. "That's when we began to ramp up to provide those as soon as we could."
The effort was not fast enough to save John Hart.
As a teenager, the strapping Hart knew he wanted to be in the Army and prepared himself by joining Bedford High's rifle team and Junior ROTC program.
Even his teenage mischief had a military bent. Longtime friend Ben Chambers recalled sneaking out of their houses at 2 a.m. to plaster Army stickers around town.
Hart's mother, Alma, sent his name to a Navy recruiter, thinking that service might be safer. But Chambers said Hart was determined to wind up as an Army soldier "on the ground actually doing something as opposed to sitting behind a desk. He wanted to be the person making a difference."
After enlisting in September 2002, Hart joined his unit, the 173d Airborne Brigade, in northern Iraq last summer. A trained paratrooper, he was in several firefights and earned a Combat Infantryman Badge.
Others in his unit have since told his father how they also felt vulnerable on patrol in Humvees. One was Specialist Joshua Sams, the driver of Hart's Humvee who was injured during the ambush.
In a telephone interview, Sams said he was not sure whether armor would have saved Hart, because he was riding in the open bed of the Humvee when the squad came under fire. Sams said armor would have protected another soldier, Lieutenant David R. Bernstein, 24, who died in the attack.
A graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Bernstein bled to death after being hit by a bullet that tore through the Humvee, Sams said. "You could see the hole" in the vehicle, Sams said.
On Oct. 19, Brian and Alma Hart woke to a 6 a.m. knock at the door at the family's Bedford home. A policeman, a local priest, and an Army officer delivered the news.
At the time, the family was scheduled to move to Illinois, where Brian Hart was to start a new job as an executive at a drug wholesaler. The family remained in Massachusetts, fearing a move would be too stressful, and Hart began a local job search. He has devoted much of his time to researching armored vehicles.
Working the Internet and phones daily, Hart learned about more soldiers killed in unarmored Humvees and which defense contractors made add-on armor for the vehicles. He also became an outspoken critic, appearing on national radio shows, granting newspaper interviews, and making trips to meet with politicians in Washington, D.C.
After his son was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Hart took up the issue with Kennedy, who attended the service. Kennedy said he had heard concerns about Humvees, but embraced the issue after meeting with the Harts. Of the 18 soldiers killed in Iraq who were either Massachusetts residents or who have next of kin in the state, six died in unarmored Humvees or trucks, according to a count by Kennedy's office as of mid-January.
Hart touched base with others in Washington, including Democratic Representatives John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Brian Baird of Washington. Other politicians got involved after hearing concerns from their constituents.
They, in turn, began to contact Army officials about the Humvee armor and why more units did not have it. At a Senate hearing in November, Brownlee, the acting secretary of the Army, said the service had ordered as many up-armored vehicles as its contractors could produce, but that it would take until mid-2005 to deliver them.
That seemed like a long time to Hart. He went to the Web and learned that the armor makers were not at full production. Later, a representative from O'Gara-Hess confirmed that. Hart took those details to Kennedy's office.
Armed with that information, the senator urged the Army to speed its approval and acquisition process. Under pressure, the Army tested bulletproof door panels from Foster-Miller, the Waltham defense contractor, making them ready for the Marine Corps to buy in January.
"The political questions raised the profile of the issue," said Doug Thomson, business development manager at Foster-Miller.
A major breakthrough came last week, when Brownlee unveiled plans to double orders of heavily armored Humvees, from 220 to 450 a month.
While a good start, Brian Hart said, he hardly calls it a victory. He still plans to spend much of his time working the phones to make sure the plans get fully funded.
"It's an obligation," Hart said. "Pretty much
an obligation from a father to his son to try to protect his friends."
Brian Hart is on a quest for answers. By night, he sends e-mail messages and posts notes on electronic bulletin boards. By day, he works the phones.
Mr. Hart is haunted by the ambush that killed his son. Private First Class John Hart, a 20-year-old paratrooper with the 173rd Infantry Brigade, was hit in the neck and killed on October 18, 2003, in Taza, near Kirkuk. It was the same late-night attack that took the life of Lieutenant Bernstein. Their unit was ordered to find the enemy. The enemy found them.
But what happened after that, after the grenades ripped into the Humvee?
"Did John bleed to death? Did he suffer?" asked Alma Hart, his mother.
Mr. Hart is more critical.
"The Army hasn't given us any more information than a three-sentence press release," he said. "It's awful."
An Army spokeswoman, Shari Lawrence, said what relatives are told about a soldier's death was sometimes incomplete "because we try to notify the family as quickly as possible."
So the Harts have turned to their son's comrades for information. They have learned that some soldiers have been camping out in water treatment facilities and sleeping on pipes. And that others lack the right protective gear. And that most Humvees, like the one their son was riding in, are not armored.
"It breaks your heart that these kids are living in real deprivation out there and we don't know about it," Mrs. Hart said.
Major Gary Tallman, an Army spokesman, said that nearly 50,000 troops in Iraq, more than a third of the total force there, did not have bulletproof vests, but that the Army hoped to have them outfitted by next year.
The Harts are working with members of Congress to get more resources now. They still support the war. They just want it fought better.
Two Dedicated Soldiers Honored
Families Mourn Victims of War
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Wednesday, November 5, 2003
When Army Captain John R. Teal was in high school in Hanover County, Virginia, he told his mother that he didn't like how the school would "just throw the flag" up the pole in the morning and pull it down at night. So he persuaded school officials to institute a military flag ceremony, which he helped conduct daily until his graduation in 1990.
A decade later and more than 500 miles away, John D. Hart joined Junior ROTC at his high school in Bedford, Massachusetts. After he watched the events of September 11, 2001, on television, Hart decided to dedicate himself to what had been an occasional dream -- becoming a soldier. He enlisted in the Army shortly after graduation last year and wound up a Private with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Yesterday, Teal and Hart became the 32nd and 33rd U.S. casualties from Iraq to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery this year.
Before Teal's ceremony, a bittersweet irony was on the mind of his mother, who recalled that it was a former guard at Arlington who had taught her son how to care for the flag in high school.
"So it's going to take everything I've got to keep it together when they hand me that flag," said Emmie Teal. "It's going to be rough."
John Teal, 31, was killed October 23, 2003, when a homemade bomb exploded on a roadside where he was traveling with a convoy about 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, according to the Army. Family and friends remembered him yesterday as someone who made fast friends with almost everyone he met. They recalled him playing soldier as a boy of about 10, dressed in fatigues and patrolling the ditches around the family's central Virginia home.
Emmie Teal said that when her son was deployed to Iraq, she had a dark feeling that something bad could happen. That tension stayed with her every day, she said, until the uniformed officers showed up at the door to break the news to her and her husband, Joseph.
"Part of me didn't believe it when they told me," she said. "I had to see him, just to make sure there wasn't some mistake. I knew they weren't wrong, but I had to see for myself."
After Teal's body was shipped home to a funeral parlor just outside Richmond, the bad news sunk in with finality. By the time Emmie Teal greeted the other teary-eyed mourners at the graveside service yesterday, she had been allowed a few private moments for one last look at her son.
"But what we saw there, that wasn't the boy we knew," she said. "The smile was gone. He was never without a smile."
A few hundred yards from where a composed Emmie Teal was handed the folded American flag that had rested on her son's coffin, Hart's graveside ceremony was soon to begin.
Hart was killed five days before Teal, when his Humvee was ambushed near Kirkuk in northern Iraq. A memorial service for Hart last week drew hundreds to the Bedford town common for a candlelight vigil. At that service and at yesterday's burial, friends remembered the 20-year-old soldier as playful, determined and kind. They described a young man who loved animals and -- before settling on a career in the military -- talked of being a veterinarian.
"He placed others' well-being above his own," said the Rev. John Gibbons, of the Bedford Unitarian Community, who delivered a graveside eulogy. "He was proud to serve in freedom's cause."
The soldier's parents, Brian and Alma, were joined yesterday by Hart's two teenage sisters and a large contingent of family and friends who traveled to Washington from Massachusetts.
Ed Hynes, a family friend, said that the conditions described by Hart in letters home have led the family to make appeals to the military to provide more resources to protect service members in Iraq.
"The message they want to get out from all
this is to make sure the soldiers are properly equipped over there -- they're
not 100 percent sure that's the case," Hynes said. "And they also want
to make sure the American people welcome home each and every soldier with
open arms, whether they agree with this war or not."
BEDFORD, Massachusetts - Tears and laughter marked the memorial service for Army Private John Hart, as family and friends remembered a kind and ever-smiling young man who loved animals and dreamed of serving his country.
''You dreamed of being a soldier and you lived your dream,'' an emotional Brian Hart told his son at the interfaith memorial service at St. Michael's Church in Hart's hometown.
Hart, who enlisted right after high school, was killed last weekend when his patrol came under fire in Iraq, exactly a month after he turned 20.
''I presumed you'd come back and become a teacher or a counselor. You already were a counselor to many,'' Brian Hart said.
Hart recalled how the September 11 terrorist attacks changed his family and strengthened his son's resolve to serve his country.
''Your sense of duty and convictions were strong.'' Hart said. ''As they say, 'Justice does not exist, unless you make it.' You had the courage to live those words.''
He and others remembered the young man who loved animals so much that he once brought a wounded skunk home and had to get rabies shots.
Another time, the adventurous Hart and his buddies got so lost on a camping trip, it took them nine hours to get to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire usually about an hour's drive from Bedford.
''They managed to miss the entire state of New Hampshire,'' said Major Dennis Saucier, a chaplain in the Air Force who was also a neighbor of the Harts and whose son was also on that trip. Laughter rippled through the church.
That trip also brought out Hart's compassionate side. Hart found a woman stuck on the mountain with a broken leg, and he and his friends ran up and down the trail to get help and care for her, Saucier said.
After the service, bagpipers played in the light drizzle and a veterans' color guard marched to a plaza behind the church, where junior ROTC members from Bedford High School folded a flag and presented it to Hart's parents.
More than 400 people, including Governor Mitt Romney and his wife Ann, attended the ceremony. Hart, whose body was still in Germany, will be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on November 4, 2003.
Lauren Badia, 16, who is a close friend of Hart's sister Rebecca, said Hart was ''just like a big teddy bear.''
''He was so caring and compassionate,'' said
Badia, who has known the Harts since kindergarten. ''He really was the
life of every party. When he'd tell stories, he'd make all these great
sound effects. He was just a big, funny guy.''
A Bedford family is mourning the death of a 20-year-old soldier who was killed over the weekend in Iraq
NewsCenter 5's Jack Harper reported that Private First Class John Hart, a member of the 4th Infantry Division, was part of a patrol that came under attack from rocket propelled grenades and small-arms fire Saturday outside Kirkuk.
For much of his life, Hart wanted to be a soldier and enlisted when he turned 19.
"When I heard what had happened, it was like somebody just tore the heart out of my chest. John is just such a good kid. When he would walk into a room, it would just brighten everything up. He always had a smile," ROTC instructor Rich Carson said.
Hart graduated from Bedford High School in 2002.
"He really, really wanted to be in the Army. He really wanted to serve his country. He had such a strong desire, ever since he was little, to go into the service and be here," classmate Adam Lauriere said.
On Saturday afternoon, one month after he turned 20, Hart was killed in the ambush.
"He is a young man who tried to do the right thing. He wasn't afraid to face evil where he saw it. He said that he thought that at least 90 percent of the people in his region were supportive of them. There were 10 percent that were out to kill him," Hart's father, Brian, said.
"He had a very big heart. He was always a gentle person. He worked very hard. He always wanted to be a soldier, and he would been a very fine man," Hart's mother, Alma, said. "We are very proud of him."
The family said that funeral arrangements are not complete, but that Hart would be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
One hundred four Americans have been killed
by hostile fire in Iraq since President George W. Bush declared an end
to major combat operations on May 1.
Bedford soldier killed in Iraqi ambush: 21 October 2003
Army Private First Class John Hart, 20, was killed in ambush Saturday night in Iraq. He is the son of Brian and Alma Hart of Bedford.
Hart grew up in Bedford and attended Bedford High School where he played lacrosse and was a member of the rifle team and Jr. ROTC.
"He liked to be with a big group of friends, and the group liked him," said his 16 year-old sister, Rebecca. Hart's other sister, Elizabeth, is 13. "He was a good big brother."
Hart's father, Brian, said they talked to him just last week, and he sounded concerned about recent activity in his area.
He felt their Humvees needed more armor, for example. Also, their living conditions were not good. Brian Hart said his son didn't have the right body armor, and the soldiers were given winter desert fatigues because the Army didn't have enough summer fatigues.
Hart's patrol, part of the Fourth Infantry Division, was hit with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire in a town called Taza, near the northern city of Kirkuk.
"He had been in combat at least three times since he'd been there," Hart's father said. "He went into harm's way knowing the consequences."
Hart's lieutenant was killed with him in the string of attacks that night.
Hart's mother said being in the Army suited Hart's personality.
"He was always a leader," she said. "I tried to talk him out of it. I think he genuinely wanted to serve his country."
Hart turned 20 on September 18, 2003, the exact day he enlisted one year ago. He had been in Iraq for only a few months.
"John was always one of those outgoing children," Hart's mother said. "When he was little and we went out, I made him wear a red shirt so we could spot him -- he would want to run off, play with other kids."
Adam Lauziere, 19, was a friend and classmate of Hart. They were in Jr. ROTC together since their sophomore year.
"It made him happy," he said. "The only thing he ever talked about was being a ranger."
Rebecca said her brother was a very caring person. Once, she said, he rescued a limping skunk from the side of the road. As a result, he and his friends had to get rabies shots.
Neighbor Doug Townsend, who has been helping the Harts since Sunday, said his daughter rode the school bus with Hart. He was a good friend, he said -- like a brother to his daughter.
Last spring, soon after John was deployed, Brian Hart publicly declared his disdain for the "Speak Out for Peace" sign that was put up on the First Parish Church by parishioners. He claimed the sign disrespected those who are fighting for our country by suggesting that peace is the answer to the problem.
He saw the sign on his way to pick up his son from the airport in March, the last time he came home. The Rev. John Gibbons said the church did not mean disrespect for those serving; they simply wanted to uphold the idea of peace.
The church agreed, however, to take the sign down after two weeks.
Now, the Harts are friends with Gibbons, as the reverend shows them support during this hard time.
The Harts held a press conference yesterday afternoon at their home. Friends and neighbors dropped by all day, and the phone was active. One family friend dropped by after shopping for some food for the Harts; she said Stop & Shop had heard what happened, and the store donated food to the family.
Hart was part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. His father believes his son's patrol helped prevent a civil war in Iraq. Hart's parents said the Army also increased Hart's confidence, that it was good for him.
"I cried when he left," Hart's mother said. "He called me the next morning and said, 'I'm sorry I made you cry.'"
Maj. Dennis Saucier is the Base Chaplain at Hanscom Air Force Base, and Hart's father said he was a friend of his son. Through Saucier, Brian Hart was able to learn that John's body is in Germany right now. Hart is eligible to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and that is where his family decided he should rest. Preparations for the funeral will be made in the next few weeks.
Last weekend, the Harts sold their house and will move to the Chicago area.
The Harts want to donate a bench or other memorial to their son and place it near the high school. Hart was one of the students in the Jr. ROTC who took part in the honor guard at the unveiling of Memorial Park in Bedford.
Brian Hart's opinion of the war has not changed since his son's death.
"It is cruel fate that someone so good and so loved would perish, and truly evil people continue to perpetuate fear and destruction," he said. "There may be a smarter plan than this, but I don't know what it is."
There may be a local memorial service for Hart this weekend, but there are no details yet. His friends are planning a candlelight vigil in Bedford this week.
Alma Hart stood over her only son’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery in November 2003, vowing to honor his life.
Pfc. John Hart was just 20 when he was shot dead by an Iraqi enemy – just three months after his arrival in Iraq.
“When we buried John I promised him I would think of him every day,” said Hart yesterday, her voice breaking. “And I have.”
Today, as another Veterans Day passes, Alma Hart, 47, her husband, Brian, 46, and their two teenage daughters will lay a wreath in John’s memory at Memorial Park near their Bedford home. John Hart was one of 31 Massachusetts soldiers killed in the war so far.
But helping the living is what helps his mother make sense of her child’s death. She has begun volunteering at Bedford’s Veterans Administration hospital, determined to make sure the soldiers there aren’t ignored like many who returned from Vietnam.
“I will not let this happen to the Iraq generation. We can’t just stuff them in a hospital and leave them there,” Hart said. “This is how I will honor my son. I just can’t sit around and stare at John’s picture. There are guys that still need me.”
John Hart was killed as he traveled with fellow soldiers in a canvas-covered Humvee in Northern Iraq. In a phone call home a week before his death, he told his father he lacked body armor and ammunition.
“He said, ‘Dad can you do something?’ ” Hart remembered. Alma Hart said she and her husband were stunned, though they had heard news reports of ill-equipped soldiers.
“We were hoping it wasn’t true. President Bush had announced the war was over in May and I thought they were just there on peacekeeping stuff,” Hart said.
By the time the couple decided to write a letter to Massachusetts congressmen, “the Army was ringing the doorbell to say John was killed,” Hart said.
“They sent him into an ambush where there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell he was going to survive,” she said.
She vividly remembers the early morning in October 2003 when her doorbell rang. Looking out the window she saw a local police officer, a priest and an Army official.
“I thought: ‘I just won’t open the door. They can’t tell me if I don’t open the door,’ ” Hart said.
Hart feels deceived the White House hasn’t established that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or a connection to al-Qaeda.
“I bought the whole line. The president told me something and I believed him,” Hart said. “But Brian and I have this nagging fear that it is going to come to nothing. We want something meaningful to come out of this for John. This is the big tragedy for us, and to think he was lied to by his government and sent over there ill-equipped and unprepared is very upsetting."
“I used to be a Republican until they killed my son,” Hart said. “Killing my boy was the last straw.”
She wants American troops brought home.
“It isn’t just John’s death. It isn’t only about our son. It is about everybody’s sons. It is about all the innocent Iraqis who are trying to raise a family just like me. We can’t fight their civil war for them.”
By April Witt
Sunday, June 18, 2006; Page W08
Courtesy of the Washington Post Magazine
The world's most powerful military failed to provide the armor that would have saved scores of American lives. One father wouldlike to know why.
Private First Class John Hart whispered into the phone so he wouldn't be overheard. It was just a matter of time, he said, before his buddies and he bumped down some back road in Iraq right into an ambush. They were so exposed, the somber young soldier told his dad, back home in Bedford, Massachusetts. They were riding around in unarmored Humvees with canvas tops and gaping openings on the sides where doors should be. That seemed pretty stupid now that people were shooting at them and lobbing rockets. John, a 20-year-old gunner whose job it was to keep his head up and return fire, felt hung out in the breeze.
As John's father, Brian Hart, remembers the conversation, he listened with growing alarm, then stepped into his home office so his wife, Alma, wouldn't hear. It was October 11, 2003.
The Harts couldn't have been prouder of their only son for answering the president's call to fight the war against terror in Iraq. That very day, the Harts had accepted a contract to sell their clapboard house in historic Bedford, in part because they felt out of step with anti-war sentiments in town. Seven months earlier, on the eve of war, the congregation of First Parish Unitarian Church had unfurled a big blue banner emblazoned: "Speak Out For Peace." The Harts were offended. The banner loomed over the town common, hallowed ground where Bedford minutemen had gathered before the first battles of the Revolutionary War in nearby Lexington and Concord. The normally soft-spoken Brian Hart told town selectmen that if the banner didn't come down, he'd sue the town. The day the war began, the Unitarians rolled up their peace banner voluntarily. Still, the skirmish left the Harts feeling so out of sorts with Bedford, their home of 14 years, that they planned to move away.
Now, talking on the phone with his young warrior, Brian tried to understand what he was hearing. Don't believe spinmeisters on TV, Brian recalls his son saying; the Iraqi insurgency is real and building. John and his buddies in Charlie Company of the 508th Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade were patrolling ever longer distances in thin-skinned Humvees suited for hauling cargo, not for carrying soldiers under fire.
This was not the first time John had confided that the U.S. military was failing to provide him with essential equipment. In previous calls home, Brian recalls, John recounted a bewildering array of shortages and snafus. Before landing in Iraq that scorching July, John told his father, he'd been issued a winter-weight camouflage suit, body armor with protective plates too small to shield his broad chest, and a broken rifle. An expert marksman and former co-captain of the Bedford High School shooting team, John had been told to conserve scarce bullets by not taking practice shots to sight his weapon, he said. Summertime water rations were so inadequate that guys were passing out in the Iraqi heat.
John endured these hardships gamely. He had wanted to be a soldier as long as anyone could remember. In high school he joined the JROTC and daydreamed of military life, filling his notebooks with sketches of tanks. Now he was living his dream. During this call home, however, John seemed unusually concerned. He asked his dad to do something to get his buddies the equipment they needed to try to survive. "He said anything I could do would be greatly appreciated," Brian recalled.
Brian hung up, haunted by the grim fatalism in his son's voice. "This is how it's going to be," John had told him. "We're going to be riding down some road when we're ambushed from the side . . ." One week later, fatalism would prove to be prophecy.
PFC. CHRIS WILLIAMS, 19, remembers thinking: Why us?
Williams and John Hart were sitting in the back of an M998 cargo Humvee. It was late, nearly 9 p.m. on October 18, 2003. They were hot and tired. After an exhausting day escorting their commanding officer, Capt. John Kilbride, between "safe houses" where elements of his command were encamped, their vehicle and two other Humvees were to ride together to Kirkuk Air Base: hot chow, hot showers, phone banks and Internet access. "We were happy the day was going to end," Williams recalls. Then the plan changed.
Insurgents had just fired rockets at Kirkuk. The Air Force had coordinates for the enemy firing position, and this convoy had been ordered to hunt for the rocket-lobbers.
"I'm like, uh, why are they sending us?" Williams recalls. "We were returning kitchen equipment. We were not combat-effective . . . You are going to investigate a rocket attack. So you know they have rockets. Why send guys in a rickety Humvee to chase guys who have rockets?"
Williams didn't ask his questions aloud. "I was a private," recalls Williams, now a clerk at a Blockbuster Video in Washington state. "I wasn't supposed to ask questions."
The convoy rolled away from the safe house into the dark. There were 14 men among the three vehicles. Kilbride, one of at least four members of his extended family to graduate from West Point, rode in the lead Humvee. His second in command, 1st Lt. David Bernstein, 24, was in the last Humvee with Williams and Hart. Specialist Joshua Sams, 20, was at the wheel. Bernstein was valedictorian of his suburban Philadelphia high school. He graduated fifth in his class at West Point. He was so fit and gung-ho about physical training that his men affectionately called him Super Dave behind his back. Everyone liked Super Dave. He was known for listening to the concerns of his men and trying to help. "I respected him not because he was an officer but because of who he was as a person," Sams says.
It was pitch-black as the convoy followed a back road through open agricultural fields. Sitting on makeshift benches in the open back bed of the Humvee the two privates were not just exposed -- their only protection some Kevlar blankets draped over the benches -- they couldn't see much. Roughly 33 yards to the right, a large earthen berm paralleled the road. Up ahead, the road took a 90-degree turn to the left, and the berm turned with it.
It was about 9:15 p.m. when six to eight insurgents, dug in along the berm, opened fire on the convoy with rocket-propelled grenades, medium machine guns and AK-47 assault rifles, according to combatant interviews and available military documents. Kilbride's Humvee sped through the left turn in the road and kept going. It was standard procedure for ambushed convoys to speed through the kill zone, then regroup down the road for possible counterattack.
As the second Humvee accelerated, a chaplain who'd been hitching a ride back to base when the convoy mission changed took cover, lying flat on the floor; a soldier used the clergyman's back as a firing platform to steady his light machine gun. The third Humvee was taking the brunt of the enemy attack. Sams killed the headlights and hit the gas. He crouched low and leaned as far as he could out the open left side of the Humvee -- away from the enemy fire -- while still driving more than 50 miles an hour. Sams saw Bernstein next to him firing at the insurgents with his M4 rifle, he says. Behind him, he heard Hart open fire, too.
In the back bed of the Humvee next to Hart, Williams says, he believed his rifle had jammed. So he "went for cover," trying to shield himself behind the Kevlar blankets. "I was waiting to die," he says. He heard Hart's machine gun fall silent, then felt him drop to the floor of the Humvee beside him. He yelled at Hart to keep firing. Hart didn't answer or move. "That's when I knew he was dead," Williams says.
At the wheel, Sams recalls, he maneuvered to avoid being blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade that missed the Humvee by a yard and a half. Instead of following the left turn in the road, Sams drove straight onto a field. As the Humvee hurtled forward, Sams fell out the left side opening where a door should have been. As he tumbled, his armored vest snagged on the front left wheel well. He was dragged, still conscious, 25 yards, until the driverless Humvee struck the berm, then rolled backward, pinning Sams's left arm beneath the wheel.
Silence. Deep silence. Nobody was firing, Sams recalls. Not his guys. Not the other guys. The rest of the convoy was long gone. Sams wondered if anyone else was alive in his Humvee. He wondered if he was alone out there.
Sams tried to pull his arm free. It wouldn't budge. He swung his legs around, placed both feet in the wheel well and pushed, trying to lift the 1 1/4-ton vehicle off his arm. No go. Sams rolled on to his side and stretched out his legs, testing to see if he could reach one foot inside the Humvee and hit the gas. "Stuff you basically know you can't do," Sams recalls. "I was trying to save my arm."
Desperate, Sams called out in the dark that his arm was pinned and he needed someone to drive the Humvee off him. A lone figure appeared around the back of the Humvee. It was too dark for Sams to make out who it was. Maybe an insurgent, in which case he was dead. Sams watched the large silent figure lurch around the truck, struggle to climb in the driver's side opening, fail and fall down. Again, the figure tried to climb into the Humvee, and again he fell. Four times he tried and fell, Sams recalls. On the fifth attempt, the figure climbed into the driver's seat and reversed the Humvee off Sams's arm. Then the man collapsed and tumbled out of the Humvee onto the dirt field.
Sams tried to stand to go to his rescuer but fell forward; that's when he realized he had broken his ankle. He fell close enough to his rescuer to recognize him at last. It was Bernstein: Super Dave. "I asked him where he was hit," Sams recalls. "He said, 'My leg.'" Sams, who had taken a 2 1/2-day course in basic combat first aid, patted Bernstein's left leg until he felt dampness. "I found his entrance and exit wound," Sams says. "My fingers went in as I was patting him up." The insurgents' machine-gun fire had easily pierced the thin skin of their unarmored vehicle and struck Bernstein above the left knee.
Sams, like most soldiers, kept field dressings, gauze pads with strings attached, tucked in the webbing of his armored vest. He tied the dressing around Bernstein's leg. "That's when it dawned on me I have two privates in the back of the vehicle I haven't heard a word from," Sams recalls.
Steadying himself against the Humvee, Sams hopped back to the rear of the vehicle. There he found Hart dead with a bullet hole in his neck and Williams sitting unharmed, head down, arms wrapped around his legs. Sams thought Williams might be in shock; Williams said he wasn't. Sams told Williams to pick up Hart's machine gun, reload and stand guard. Williams searched Hart's body for more ammo. In the dark, Williams couldn't figure out how to remove Hart's ammo case, so he tore the bullets out in strips, hurrying in case they were attacked again.
Sams went back to kneel beside his lieutenant. "My pants legs were instantly covered, drenched in blood," Sams says. The bullet had severed Bernstein's femoral artery. The lieutenant was going to bleed to death if they didn't tie a tourniquet around his leg fast. But they hadn't been issued tourniquets.
Eight months earlier, a committee of military medical experts had urged the Pentagon to give every soldier in the war a tourniquet. Bleeding to death from an arm or leg wound is the most common cause of preventable death in combat, the Committee on Tactical Combat Casualty Care reported. Quick access to a cheap, simple modern tourniquet could save many lives, military doctors had concluded. Yet it would be two more years before the U.S. Central Command, which runs combat operations in Iraq, adopted a policy saying all soldiers in combat should carry a tourniquet. Even then, the policy was moot because the Army didn't widely distribute tourniquets for several more months. An investigation by the Baltimore Sun spurred that distribution and documented one reason for the delay: Military procurement specialists were studying what kind of pouch to carry the new first aid kits with tourniquets in.
That left Sams, in October 2003, in much the same position as a soldier on a Revolutionary War battlefield: trying to improvise a tourniquet with a length of cloth and a stick. Only Sams couldn't find a stick in the Iraqi field.
"I was looking for anything hard," Sams recalls. He and Williams found a fuel-can nozzle in the Humvee. Sams wrapped a fresh field dressing around Bernstein's leg and used the gas nozzle to try to twist the dressing tightly enough to staunch the arterial bleed. As Sams twisted, the strings on the field dressing broke.
Desperate, Sams cut the strap off an M4 rifle and tried again. The strap didn't break, but it was too short. It kept coming untwisted, Sams says. So he tied a dressing on top of his improvised tourniquet to keep it in place. Bernstein still had a pulse, but he'd stopped moaning, Sams says.
Sams didn't have time to feel relieved when he finally spied his platoon leader and a few other soldiers -- a scouting party from the convoy -- walking toward their crash site. He checked the lieutenant's neck and could no longer find a pulse, he says. He tried to perform CPR, but with his wounded arm couldn't apply much pressure. He let one of the newly arrived soldiers take over. Sams leaned against the Humvee, exhausted, and watched a sad succession of privates and officers pound Bernstein's chest long past knowing their efforts were futile. Roughly an hour after the attack on the convoy, a Blackhawk helicopter arrived to evacuate Bernstein and Sams, according to interviews and records.
Sams, now a long-haul truck driver, never regained the feeling in his left arm. Bernstein, one of West Point's finest, a genuine hero educated for military brilliance at a cost of more than $400,000 to taxpayers, died without a $20 tourniquet.
John Hart -- who loved the celebratory soldiers' anthem "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" -- never would.
THE NEXT MORNING in a tan clapboard house in Bedford, Brian Hart knew even before he saw the Army officer, policeman and Catholic priest standing stone-faced on his front stoop. He could hear Alma screaming, "N-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!"
It wasn't long before the Harts' house was jammed with mourners. Camera crews camped out front. Brian and Alma knew scant details about how John and Bernstein had died. They knew their son and the lieutenant had the sad distinction of being the 103rd and 104th soldiers to die in Iraq after President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat. Brian and Alma didn't draw the drapes on their grief. They held impromptu news conferences on the lawn. They still believed in the war, Alma, then 45, told the Boston Globe. "You know, it's just a dirty job that's got to be done." John understood the risk when he enlisted, and went to Iraq "eyes open," Brian, then 44, told the Associated Press.
The Unitarian church pastor, the Rev. John Gibbons, arrived to offer condolences to the family that had opposed his congregation's peace banner; he found them, he remembers, looking dazed at the center of a chaotic throng. Earlier that morning, Gibbons had taken the pulpit to say that issues of war were no longer abstract for Bedford. The town of just over 12,000 had suffered its first battlefield casualty since World War II.
Bedford mourned John's loss along with his parents and two younger sisters. The first snow of the season had blanketed the town commons, where hundreds of residents gathered for a candlelight vigil in John's memory. A former classmate of John's made a huge magenta wreath, festooned it with a photograph of John in his uniform and laid it against a granite boulder on the commons. A few days later, at a more formal memorial service, Gibbons read a poem by Archibald MacLeish:
"The young dead soldiers do not speak. Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses . . . They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours, they will mean what you make them."
John's body was en route from Iraq to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Brian and Alma spent all week unsure exactly where their dead son was.
Brian felt lost, too. It was almost impossible to believe that a young man so tenderhearted that he once tried to save a sick skunk -- and ended up getting 10 weeks of rabies shots for his troubles -- died so violently. One week after John's death, Brian walked alone to the town commons. It was nearly midnight. The only motion in the square was a stoplight flashing yellow. Brian sat on a bench next to John's photo, smiling at him from the magenta wreath -- so sweet and handsome -- and sobbed.
On October 31, 2003, the Harts went to West Point for Bernstein's funeral. After the service, Brian says, he asked the sergeant who had escorted Bernstein's body back from Iraq if it was true that the lieutenant and his son had been riding in an unarmored Humvee. The sergeant said yes and that he thought there were only five fully factory-armored M114 Humvees in all of northeastern Iraq. What else, Brian wanted to know, did our soldiers in Iraq need but not have. The sergeant introduced Brian to an Army officer, and they talked for an hour. "I learned that these boys didn't even have the right bandages," Brian recalls.
It is on the battlefield that some men find their moment of truth. They shoot or duck, kill or hesitate, save or sacrifice themselves. Brian Hart, who never donned a uniform or raised a gun at any enemy, experienced his moment of truth in a graveyard for soldiers.
ONCE BRIAN STARTED asking questions, he couldn't stop.
He flew to Washington two days before John's funeral at Arlington to question the soldier escorting his son's body home -- Chris Williams, who'd been riding next to John during the fatal ambush. Williams told him that the bullet that killed Bernstein went right through the thin metal skin of the unarmored Humvee and that the vehicle had not even a simple gun shield for John to take cover behind when he returned fire.
Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was planning to attend John's November 4 funeral. Brian contacted his office and asked if he and Kennedy could meet before the service to talk. Some of Brian's relatives were aghast. Brian grew up in a family of fundamentalist Christians who vote Republican. At the University of Texas, Brian was president of the campus Republicans. Now some of his Texas relatives warned Brian not to be seen with Kennedy, he recalls. Brian didn't care. To get answers, he needed allies. He even called John Kerry's presidential campaign; but nobody called back, he says. Kerry did send an aide to John's funeral.
Standing in an administrative office at Arlington, John Hart's grieving parents and Kennedy talked so long that they delayed the funeral 30 minutes. Kennedy promised that he would try to get the Senate Armed Services Committee to hold a hearing on equipment shortages.
During the service, taps sounded in the distance seven or eight times for other soldiers being laid to rest. The Harts flew home, where Brian, a business executive, began spending hours at his computer and on the phone, searching for an explanation of how the world's greatest military could have let his son and Bernstein die the way they did.
"I needed to know," he says. "I just needed to know what was going on. John asked me to do something, then he was dead.''
WE HAVE WHAT WE HAVE," Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker said as he sat at the witness table in a meeting room of the Hart Senate Office Building. "We have as much body armor as we have, because that's what we invested in. We have the amount of Humvees because that's what we invested in."
On November 19, 2003, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing at which senators questioned Schoomaker and acting secretary of the Army Les Brownlee about shortages in body armor and armored Humvees.
Brownlee acknowledged that in some places in Iraq the U.S. military could provide only one Interceptor vest with protective plates for every three U.S. soldiers. The military was so short of fully factory-armored Humvees that it would take two years for the manufacturer to produce enough to meet current needs, he said. To try to protect troops sooner than that, the military was "testing and examining" ways to add armor to existing thin-skinned Humvees.
Kennedy retorted that waiting until 2005 for an adequate supply of factory-armored Humvees was unacceptable; he invoked Brian and Alma Hart to explain why: "When I was out at Arlington for Private First Class Hart's burial, the parents said, 'If you can do anything to make sure that other soldiers who are over there are not put in the kind of danger that my son was put in, and lost, that would be the best thing that we could ever think of in terms of our son.'" Kennedy pressed Brownlee on whether the military could speed production of new fully factory-armored Humvees.
"I've been assured we're buying everything they can produce," Brownlee said.
"I mean, are they running their plant 24 hours a day?" Kennedy asked.
"My understanding is, sir, they're operating at maximum capacity. . ."
That night, some television news reports on the hearing mentioned John's death. The Harts had become the poster family for preventable deaths in unarmored Humvees. Brian was a natural spokesman for the cause. He had the soft voice and gentle, optimistic demeanor of a Jimmy Stewart character. He had boundless faith that now that the equipment problems had been acknowledged, the nation would solve them. He even started to feel a little bit like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
"I thought it was all a mistake that would be corrected once people found out," he says.
SOLDIERS HAVE BEEN DYING over equipment failures for as long as nations have made war. As the traditional nursery rhyme, meant to teach children the consequences of failing to prepare, goes:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Some equipment shortages in the Iraq war were both as tragic and as easy as the rhyme to understand. The Pentagon prepared to fight the wrong war: a short war over weapons of mass destruction that would end with Iraqis celebrating their liberation. One month before the war, for example, the Army had on hand at least two chemical-bio protective suits for every soldier it would send into Iraq, the Government Accountability Office later documented. They sat unneeded. The WMD never materialized, while the insurgency flourished without the benefit of any chemical or biological weapons.
Meanwhile, nearly 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, more than one-third of the total force there, still lacked modern body armor eight months after the war began, an Army spokesman said at the time. The U.S. military had expected that only "forward combat elements" would need body armor, not "the rear troops, the logistics forces," Brownlee explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee on November 19. They hadn't expected an insurgency that placed all the troops at risk of coming into close contact with the enemy.
"There is no rear area," Senator John Warner (R-Va.), the committee chairman, said.
Some equipment problems and shortages that plagued the troops in Iraq were more baffling, Brian Hart discovered as he began networking with politicians, soldiers, private contractors and relatives of soldiers eager to get troops whatever they needed to survive. In December, Brian corresponded with people in Missouri volunteering time and money to privately armor vehicles for a company of Army Reservists about to go to Iraq.
"The town mortician paid the bill," Brian recalls. "A local steel company shut down for a week. A crew armored the vehicles with high-grade commercial steel."
Brian delighted in the can-do spirit of his fellow Americans -- but only briefly. The Army threatened not to let the reservists use their freshly cut 13,000 pounds of donated armor because the steel hadn't been tested for conformity to military specifications. The reservists left for Iraq with armor for their vehicles only after irate Missouri congressmen intervened at the last minute.
Brian was dumbfounded.
ON THE EVE OF WAR -- eight months before Private First Class John Hart and First Lieutenant David Bernstein took their final ride in an ill-equipped convoy -- some of the nation's most powerful members of Congress asked top military and defense officials to testify about Bush's defense budget. The hearing room was packed on February 13, 2003, as General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld faced their legislative overseer, the Senate Armed Services Committee. An invasion of Iraq seemed imminent. Tensions with North Korea were mounting.
Senator Warner asked Myers the obvious question: Was the military prepared? "So, I start with you, General," Warner said. "The armed forces, which are under your super-vision: Is it your professional judgment that they are prepared to meet any contingency for the use of force as may be required in Iraq . . . and to continue the high level of activity against the worldwide terrorism?"
Myers responded: "I'll give you a real short answer: absolutely."
Neither Warner nor the other senators present asked follow-up questions about preparedness. The senators didn't ask about what the nation's fighting men and women might need that they didn't have. The general didn't tell.
They would have had plenty to talk about.
General Eric K. Shinseki, then Army chief of staff, wrote to Congress a few weeks later, saying that the administration budget left the Army alone $3.2 billion short of what the service needed for "sustainment of war-fighting readiness." Shinseki's wish list of unfunded requests included items as basic as guns, bullets and armor.
Once the nation went to war, soldiers and Marines on the ground soon found themselves short of even water and food. According to the GAO, the military lacked more than 1 million cases of Meals Ready to Eat. Soldiers ran short of the non-rechargeable lithium batteries needed to operate 60 different communication and electronic systems, systems that are critical to tracking targets or allowing soldiers under fire talk to one another. Many soldiers and Marines not only didn't have armor on trucks or Humvees, they didn't even have spare tires. The tire shortage was so severe that some soldiers and Marines were forced to strip and abandon expensive, and otherwise perfectly good, vehicles because they had no way to replace flats, the GAO later documented.
Soldiers lacking body armor and riding in unarmored vehicles with no spare tires were not unfortunate flukes. They were evidence of what the GAO, in a 2005 report, called systemic problems with how the military prepares for war. Among them: failing to maintain adequate reserves of crucial items; inaccurately forecasting supply; inadequate funding; and delayed purchasing.
"All of us had certain imperfections, whether it's the military branch or the Congress," Warner says now. Both military decision-makers and their congressional overseers drew on their experiences of the Gulf War, which was over "in 100 hours," he says.
"This problem was entirely foreseeable," says Winslow Wheeler, who published a 2004 book on the subject titled Wastrals of Defense. Wheeler spent 30 years as a congressional staff member before joining a privately funded research institute, the Center for Defense Information, as head of its military reform project. "It is the inevitable consequence of what we've been doing for the last 30 years . . . Pedestrian items are not sexy inside the Pentagon, and certainly not on Capitol Hill. They only become sexy when you go to war and they are missing."
Since the mid-1970s, would-be reformers have lamented that the military, in its efforts to modernize, tends to make its equipment and weapons systems more complicated, which makes them more expensive -- but not necessarily more effective. In 1983, a Pentagon analyst named Franklin C. Spinney made the cover of Time magazine for his efforts, deeply unpopular inside the Pentagon, to debunk the assumptions driving that trend. When new weapons systems were being developed, Spinney observed, Pentagon planners tended to promise they would be cheaper, better and easier to maintain than the old system. Rosy predictions helped get the new system approved, Spinney argued. So did what he called political engineering, in which the contractor chosen to build the system would seek subcontractors in as many congressional districts as possible. Inevitably, Spinney found, as the program evolved, the Pentagon would be forced to acknowledge continual cost increases while curtailing performance requirements.
Astronomically expensive ventures such as the $72 billion F/A-22 Raptor program -- in which the cost of each fighter jet has soared to more than $350 million -- leave relative scraps for more mundane Pentagon programs that provide soldiers with boots, bullets and beans, Spinney said. "The problem has only gotten worse since I first started talking about it," Spinney says now.
As costs for new systems strain the budget, Defense Department managers look for accounts to raid. "They raid two places particularly: the operating budget and the personnel budget," says Wheeler, who worked on defense budgeting during his decades on the Hill. "The operating budget buys spare parts, clothing, ammunition, gas, food, all that un-sexy, pedestrian stuff." Congress, rather than force the Pentagon to reorder its priorities and buy servicemen and women what they'll need most should they have to go to war, "gets these budget requests and makes the problem worse," Wheeler says. "Congress adds pork." Members of Congress salt defense budgets with pet projects like a jogging track, snake eradication programs or a parade ground maintenance contract for a long-closed military base -- all actual examples from recent budgets, Wheeler says.
"Congress has been doing this for decades," he says. "The aspect that is new is that the amount of pork has been accelerating since 9/11. There's cover for defense spending in that we're now at war. Nobody has paid much attention."
Once the Iraq war began, members of Congress were flooded with calls and letters from constituents who were angry and scared that their loved ones were under-equipped. "When soldiers have Internet access and get to phone home, you can't hide the truth for long," Brian Hart says. Congress demanded that the military correct the problem and authorized the Pentagon to spend $5 billion more for body and vehicular armor than the president requested, Warner says. But it was too late for many soldiers.
The U.S. military bureaucracy is like a giant overloaded ship that turns excruciatingly slowly -- even under fire. In May 2003 the first U.S. soldier in Iraq was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED). "It was about a week later before the second one showed up and about another week before the third one," Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount, who led U.S. troops into Iraq from Kuwait at the start of the war, later told Congress. By mid-June it was clear "a pattern started to develop for IED usage," Blount testified. Yet it wasn't until November 2003 -- nearly five months later -- that the Army said it needed 3,780 armor kits to retrofit five types of trucks to protect the troops from IEDs. The Army did not produce all the kits until February 2005 and did not install them fully until May 2005 -- 18 months after it formally identified the need, the GAO found. By that time, however, the number of unarmored trucks in Iraq that needed retrofitting kits had skyrocketed, outstripping the supply.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed outrage when he visited Iraq in 2004 and found still-desperate troops hanging plywood around open-bedded vehicles. Back in Washington he called three generals and an undersecretary of defense before the committee to excoriate them. "We've got an acquisition system that absolutely has a case of the slows," Hunter said. "You guys can't tie your shoelaces."
"Thank God for the inventiveness of the American soldier," Michael Wynne, then acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, responded. "I'd like to also say, sir, that there are some things that you are, I think, highlighting today that we could do better."
Jim Magee, a retired Marine colonel who experienced the military acquisition system as both a soldier and a contractor, agrees. He says that while serving in Beirut in 1982, he was disgusted to see French soldiers wearing expensive, state-of-the-art body armor while his men were wearing "junk that wouldn't stop a rumor." Magee vowed to change that. In the mid-1990s, he became president of Point Blank Body Armor, where he helped develop the Interceptor body armor system now issued to every U.S. soldier in Iraq. The Interceptor consists of an outer vest, designed primarily to stop shrapnel; front and back ceramic inserts to stop small arms fire; and attachments to protect areas such as the throat and groin.
Working on the project, Magee says, he was frustrated by what he viewed as the low priority the military seemed to place on getting troops the best body armor possible. As military officials reviewed prototypes of the Interceptor, they asked Point Blank to reduce the areas of the body to be covered by the outer vest, change the configuration of the ceramic plates and limit the available sizes of those plates, Magee says. "The reason was money," Magee says. An Army spokesman, Lt. Col. William Wiggins, says he was unable to locate any military procurement official who recalled suggesting that "they wanted less coverage or smaller plates based on budget objectives."
Once Point Blank and the military agreed on what body armor to produce, Magee expected that the military might contract with several companies to make it, ensuring that all U.S. troops received them as soon as possible, he says. Instead, Point Blank won an exclusive contract to make the outer vests through "very effective lobbying," Magee says. Magee, who left Point Blank in 1999, was a salaried employee, and the exclusive contract with the military didn't increase his paycheck, he says. But it was a good deal for David Brooks, the chief executive and largest shareholder of Point Blank's parent company, DHB Industries Inc. His compensation went from $525,000 in 2001 to more than $70 million in 2004.
It was a considerably less good deal for soldiers and Marines, Magee says. Roughly 20 companies in the country were qualified to make the Interceptor's outer vest, Magee says: "It's not rocket science. It's sewing."
By initially hiring just Point Blank, and spreading body armor purchases from the company out over several years, the military created a bottleneck that kept many soldiers and Marines wearing outdated vests unnecessarily for years, Magee says.
At the start of the Iraq War, Point Blank was producing just 1,200 Interceptor vests a month, Army spokesman Wiggins says. Once the Iraq war began and the body armor shortage became obvious, the Pentagon hired additional contractors to make the vests and protective plate inserts, which sped up production to a peak of 25,000 outer vests a month. Still, the GAO documented that not all troops in Iraq had Interceptor vests and plates until January 2004 -- eight months after combat operations were declared over. Wiggins called the Army's production ramp-up a "tremendous success story . . . The requirements kept changing. We needed more and more and more. It was quite a feat."
The Army recently announced that it wants to replace the Interceptor system with improved body armor and will hold an open design competition. The announcement came as the Justice and Defense departments opened a joint investigation into possible fraud and insider trading at DHB.
BRIAN HART STRUGGLED TO WAKE. He heard someone weeping. Panicked that one of his daughters down the hall was in trouble, Brian shook himself fully awake. Only then, he says, did he realize that it was he who was crying.
December 2003 was bleak. Before John was killed in an ambushed convoy, Brian had accepted a new job in Illinois with the company that had taken over the small pharmacy automation firm he'd co-founded. Brian and Alma had contracted to sell their house in Bedford and buy one in Illinois.
After John's death, they scuttled the move. Their daughters, then 13 and 17, couldn't stand to leave Bedford, where schoolmates not only knew their loss, they shared it. John, a former camp counselor, had taught a lot of kids in the small town how to swim.
Brian negotiated a buyout with his employer. But there was nothing he could do to stop his house sale. The day the movers packed up their old house, Brian and Alma had no idea where to send the boxes. They put their dog in a kennel and prepared to spend Christmas in a hotel. At the last minute, the wife of a Bedford selectman -- a member of the council Brian had threatened to sue over the Unitarians' peace banner -- found the Harts a house to rent. A friend showed up on their new front porch with a fully decorated Christmas tree. The Unitarians' pastor invited the Harts to join them for Sunday worship, but Brian resisted. "If I still had religious faith, I'd use it," Brian says. "I guess life's just kicked it out of me. What I have faith in is good people and the power of individual good works."
He also believes in systems that work. Brian's father had died years before because of a medication error, Brian says. So Brian helped invent a system for bar-coding medications to reduce mistakes. A natural problem-solver, he shared in more than a dozen patents. With no job to go to, Brian devoted himself to trying to make sure that the Pentagon sped armored Humvees to Iraq. "I thought: 'It'll take six weeks, maybe two months, of working to fix this armor thing. How hard can it be?'" Brian recalls.
When he sat in the living room of his rented home to listen to Bush's State of the Union address in January 2004, Brian was sure he was right. The president promised to get the troops the resources they needed.
It wasn't long before Brian stopped believing.
The Pentagon blamed production delays for the slow pace of getting armored Humvees to Iraq. Brian met with a representative of the manufacturer who told him they could produce hundreds of additional armored Humvees each month -- if only the Pentagon would issue purchase orders, Brian recalls. Then he learned that the administration's budget request for the next fiscal year didn't include any money for armoring existing Humvees or trucks.
"While we're in a state of combat, how could force protection be an unfunded Army requirement and not in the president's original budget submission?" Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) asked Pentagon officials during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in June 2004.
"We are executing the missions that have been given to us, and the requirements have continued to escalate," Lieutenanat General Joseph Yakovac Jr., of the Army Acquisition Corps, responded.
Hunter, the committee chair, asked Brigadier General William Catto of the Marine Corps Systems Command the same question. "When you're in a war fight and you've got these IEDs blowing up, and we're taking fairly substantial casualties, why would force protection, such as up-armor, ever be an unfunded requirement?" Hunter wanted to know. "We've got military construction programs for things like gymnasiums, and yet that money continues to flow into those programs, which are peripheral to the war fight, and it doesn't go to the fight. That seems, to me, to be a major defect in this system. Would you agree with that?"
"Yes, sir," Catto said.
Brian came up with his own answer. He decided that the Bush administration, which he had helped elect, was trying to hide the cost of war in an election year. "I felt there was a huge betrayal of the public trust -- my trust," Brian says. "I decided that I was going to raise holy hell until people understood what was going on."
In March 2004, Brian held a news conference with Representative Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) to insist that the Army spend all funds already set aside for vehicular armor immediately, rather than over months.
At First Parish Unitarian in Bedford hundreds of people showed up for forums on the Iraq war where Brian and Massachusetts politicians spoke. "Brian and Alma researched the issue of armor procurement in a very dispassionate way," Gibbons, the congregation's pastor, says. "They did not seek out information in order to posture or bolster any preconceived notion. They simply wanted to know the truth."
Brian learned so much about armor that he sometimes spoke in more detail than people could take. Once, when the Harts were being interviewed on CNN and wearing earpieces to receive off-camera direction from the segment producer, they heard the producer pleading with their interviewer to shut Brian up. "He kept saying: 'Get him off! Get him off! . . . Pul-leeeeeze get him off!'" Alma recalls, laughing.
In July 2004, Congress passed legislation giving the administration $25 billion in emergency war funds -- more than $1 billion of that to buy new armored vehicles, primarily M114 Humvees. The Harts went out to dinner to celebrate. Exhilaration proved fleeting. Soon, they were receiving panicked calls and e-mails from relatives of National Guardsmen: The military was finally going to pay to systematically armor Humvees -- but not trucks. Surfing the Web, Brian found grainy videos posted by insurgents displaying their successful attacks on U.S. convoys in Iraq. "The insurgents were just letting the armored Humvees pass and then blowing up some unarmored truck right behind them," Brian says.
From the time the Harts buried their son, Brian and Alma had reassured each other with the same refrain: We'll tackle this problem, then we'll get on with our life; we'll tackle that problem, then we'll get on with our life.
Standing in their kitchen one night, Brian looked at Alma, she recalls, and said, "Maybe this is our life."
"YOU GO TO WAR with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Kuwait on December 8, 2004. John Hart and David Bernstein had been dead more than one year.
The defense secretary's remarks to guardsman and soldiers who wanted to know why they were riding around in old, unarmored vehicles vulnerable to roadside bombs made headlines. One National Guardsman from Tennessee told Rumsfeld that he and his buddies had been left scrap metal and bulletproof glass from landfills to rig "hillbilly armor." Rumsfeld responded that the military was producing extra armor for Humvees and trucks as fast as possible, but in the meantime, soldiers would just have to cope with shortages.
Three weeks later, Sgt. Nicholas Pulliam, 42, a National Guardsman who lived near the Harts in Chelmsford, Mass., arrived in Kuwait. Publicity back home over Rumsfeld's remarks made little difference on the ground, from what Pulliam could see. A machinist readying his unit's unarmored vehicles for the long convoy into Iraq, Pulliam did the best he could. He and his buddies found a crate of vintage flak jackets and stacked them atop Humvees to try to shield the gunners who would be protecting the convoys. "We tied them up with rope and duct tape," Pulliam recalls. "We had no way to make anything better."
Once in Iraq, at Al Taqaddum Air Base in Anbar province, Pulliam found ample stocks of steel to weld real turrets but no direction from the brass on how to armor any vehicles but Humvees, he says. "We were on our own."
Back in Bedford, Brian started a blog, which Pulliam read whenever he got Internet access. One of Brian's first postings was his analysis of casualties for the first five weeks of 2005. Of the deaths for which Brian could find the cause, 74 percent had been killed by IEDs.
Brian heard that the radio jammers the U.S. military used to try to stop insurgents from using cell phones and garage-door openers to set off IEDs were in short supply. He posted a quote from Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), chiding Rumsfeld because the military insisted that the number of jammers it had in Iraq was classified information. "That number remains classified, Mr. Secretary, not because the insurgents don't know how few are protected, but because -- I'm of the opinion -- the American people would be appalled if they knew how few are protected."
Brian had a terrible thought: "We're spending $225,000 for each fully armored M114 Humvee, and we're going to lose this war to guys with garage-door openers."
He decided to use his son's death benefit from the U.S. government to try to develop a robotic device to help soldiers push IEDs off the road safely. He and his brother, a former Marine, set up a workshop in borrowed space in an industrial park. Their prototypes won them meetings with military procurement officials in Washington, but no contracts. Brian began investing his savings into improving their robots, betting that his activism wouldn't hurt his chances of eventually selling them to the Pentagon. "You have to believe that people will do the right thing in the end," he says. "If you don't . . . Well, that's not a world I want to live in."
Working furiously, Brian felt out of step with a seemingly complacent American public. He reread Martin Luther King's Letters from a Birmingham Jail and identified with the civil rights leader's frustration at "the silence of good people."
Brian started making antiwar speeches. "Is it treason to state the obvious: that occupiers stay and liberators leave?" he said June 5, 2005, at a forum at First Parish Unitarian. "In America we seem afraid to ask the president where Osama bin Laden is, why intelligence analysts can lie with impunity, why we were sent to Iraq on half-truths . . . and how will we ever get out? . . . We must hold our leaders and ourselves accountable."
It would be two months before another grieving parent, Cindy Sheehan, would go to Crawford, Tex., to try to confront the president. Brian's speech was unusual enough at the time that it received coverage in the Boston Globe. His activism alienated relatives in Texas who remain staunch Bush Republicans, he says.
"There's virtually no communication anymore," he says, choking up as he speaks. "The president says one thing, and I am telling them that's not the truth. It's unresolvable."
But Brian had his fans. Pulliam was riding in a convoy one day when a fully armored Humvee some distance ahead hit an IED. The engine was destroyed, but the armor did its job. The men inside were bruised, but in one piece. Pulliam knelt by the Humvee, holding a sign, and had a buddy take a photo so he could e-mail it to the Harts. "Thanks To: Brian + Alma Hart, Senator Kennedy and everybody who cares for our wellbeing and makes an effort," his sign said. "You have saved lives."
" COURAGE. I do not know if this quality exists in me. But I hope when the time comes I will respond."
Sgt. Steve Hines, a Massachusetts state trooper, sits in his living room in Newburyport and reads aloud from his dead son's war diary. Army 1st Lt. Derek Hines -- a star hockey player and West Point graduate -- was killed in Afghanistan on September 1. The trooper stops reading to blow his nose.
"We cry every day," his wife, Sue, says, rocking herself while clutching a throw emblazoned: West Point. "It doesn't get better. It really doesn't. He was just a love."
"Like I tell people," her husband says, "a good day is when I don't break down completely."
On this recent visit, Brian, who has made it a point to contact other local families who have lost children in Iraq, sits on the sofa next to Steve Hines. He asks the Hineses about their son's body armor. Derek wasn't wearing protective side plates in his armor when he was shot under one arm. He hadn't been issued side plates.
A study by the military's top medical examiner, Craig T. Mallak, has suggested that many soldiers and Marines killed in Iraq might have survived if they had been wearing more body armor than the Pentagon provided. During the first 27 months of the war, 93 Marines died with a primary lethal wound to the torso. Eighty percent of those -- or 74 Marines -- were wounded in unprotected areas of the chest, side, upper arm or shoulder that might be "potentially impacted by armor redesign," according to an August 2005 preliminary report on the medical examiner's study.
Mallak had been collecting lethal wound data from the start of the war. But the Marines did not commission the $107,000 study analyzing that data until December 2004. Mallak testified before Congress that he completed his first preliminary report on the study -- intended for the Pentagon only -- in March 2005, and a second one in August. Yet it wasn't until after the New York Times published a story on Mallak's findings last January that the Army awarded a $70 million contract to produce additional plates to better protect soldiers' sides.
"They basically found that they needed to have side plates," Brian says, offering his take on the study to Hines.
Steve Hines, who wears body armor in his job with an anti-terrorist unit at Boston's Logan International Airport, is unconvinced. "You have to be able to move," the trooper says. "You can't be in a coat of armor . . . [soldiers] will take them out. They won't wear them. It's 105 degrees over there." Questioning whether their son might still be alive if he'd had better body armor is something Steve Hines says he doesn't do. "We don't do much," Hines says. "We just try to get through."
He turns his attention back to his son's war diary. He flips through its pages tenderly. He reads aloud a passage in which Derek wrote that he had been lying in his bunk reading Gen. Tommy Franks's memoir, American Soldier .
"It started with a quote Franks wrote: I hope America never forgets the power of will. The soldiers I am serving with have some will and it has manifested itself daily."
The Harts leave emotionally wrung out. "Welcome to my world," Brian says.
The next morning, Brian visits the only other Bedford father who had lost a son in Iraq. On November 15, 2004, 19-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Travis R. Desiato, who grew up with John Hart, was searching for insurgents in a row of houses in Fallujah. He went through the door at the end of a hallway. Six insurgents opened fire. For the next several hours, fellow Marines fought room to room, sometimes face to face with insurgents, to recover his body and send it home to Bedford.
Travis's father, Joe Desiato, meets with Brian in a small examining room of his pediatric practice. Brian wants to know whether the protective plates of Travis's body armor had shattered when fired upon. One of Travis's plates did shatter, his father says; but given the ferocity of the attack he doesn't believe better body armor could have saved him.
The pediatrician says he respects Brian's efforts to get the troops better armor, but prefers to deal with his own grief by reflecting on the valor of young soldiers willing to die for their country and one another. "I think Brian, in forcing the armor to the vehicles, has saved a number of people's lives," he says. "But it becomes a very delicate tightrope of how to be an activist without making it political and using your son's death as a tool to espouse your views and have anyone listen."
As the doctor speaks, he sits beneath a print depicting Don Quixote, literature's secular saint of worthy lost causes.
Brian, looking around the room, asks the doctor if the kids he examines there ever remind him of Travis.
"All the time," he answers. "I see kids, 20-year-olds, getting in a car who have some mannerism like Travis, and I think, my God! Then I have to think for a second, you know, that's not Travis."
"Do you think it will always be like this, Joe?" Brian asks.
"I sure hope so," Desiato says. "I think as the years go by memories start to fade. When little things come up, you say Travis would have said this, or John would have done that. Or that's John's mannerism. Or that's Travis's mannerism. It brings back the memory. And, to be honest, sometimes it's a funny memory . . . I don't want to lose that. So I'll take some pain for some joy."
"THIS IS THE ACTUAL FLAG that covered John's casket," Alma says, lifting a triangular flag box from its permanent perch in a bay window of the Harts' living room, which is decorated as a shrine to their dead son. "This is John's Bronze Star."
Why, Brian wanted to know, didn't the military award John a Bronze Star with a V. for valor? He disappeared into his cluttered home office and returned with a letter from one of John's commanding officer's saying that their son had emptied his machine gun before he died.
While some grieving parents don't find it helpful to examine and reexamine the circumstances of their child's death, Brian doesn't want to stop asking. He concedes that he might spend less time searching for answers and more time making money to help support his family. Yet Brian says that nothing seems as important to him as his unpaid work. To stop questioning, stop trying to prevent the next casualties, would feel in some way like he was leaving John behind. So the Harts live primarily off savings and Alma's work at a temp agency while Brian keeps jousting at windmills. "When it's man against machine, man usually loses when he runs out of money," Brian says.
After one of Brian's public appearances, a military officer who had been stationed at Kirkuk Air Base when John died e-mailed that Brian should file a Freedom of Information Act asking for the military records on his son's death. The officer had heard that there was to be a formal inquiry into the fatally ill-equipped convoy; but the inquiry had never taken place.
Brian says the military's written response to his request stunned him. The key records relating to his son's death -- sworn statements given by survivors of the convoy, the official after-action report and photographs of the crash scene -- had gone missing, the government told Brian in November.
"So many guys died needlessly because of delays in getting them the right equipment, and not one general has been fired over it," Brian says. "No one has been held accountable. Why?" On this day, Brian's questions stretch on until dusk turns to dark outside the bay window where his son's medals rest, and heads around the Hart living room nod.
"Brian, it is 11 o'clock," Alma says, exasperated. "People need to go to sleep."
"I LOVE THIS GREEN," Brian says. He and Alma are walking hand in hand on Lexington Green. It is dusk the next evening. Brian points to the statue of John Parker, who led the town's minutemen. "I love that statue."
"Over there is where Paul Revere rode," he says, pointing out Battle Road, which leads to Concord. John, when he was preparing for basic training, used to run that road carrying 20 pounds of books in a rucksack.
"This is where the Revolution started," Brian says. "Forty Minutemen against 700 British. Twenty-to-one, just facing off. The farmers didn't give up."
Brian comes often to the green. He thinks about what it must have felt like to be one of those farmers. "You know you can only last so long, and then somebody's got to come and help you," he says.
Brian thinks John must have known, in his final moment, how those farmers felt. "I think courage is fighting a battle that you know you are probably going to lose," Brian says. "I think that's what John did. You realize you are going to lose that fight, but you fight it anyway."
April Witt is a staff writer for the Magazine.
She and Brian Hart will be fielding questions and comments about this article
Monday at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
Courtesy of Barbara McGlynn, Valentines's Day February 2006
Posted: 20 October 2003 - Updated: 29 October 2003 Updated: 1 November 2003 - Updated: 5 November 2003 Updated: 14 March 2004 Updated: 4 May 2004 Updated: 12 November 2005
Updated: 20 January 2006 Updted: 11 February 2006 Updated: 17 June 2006 Updated: 24 March 2007 Updated: 13 May 2008
Photo By Michael Robert Patterson, May 2008
Photo By M. R. Patterson, 22 April 2004