Fatal Inaction

By April Witt
Sunday, June 18, 2006

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 1st 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, Mass. 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?"

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company