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?"

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. Spec. 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.

Sen. 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," Sen. 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 Pfc. John Hart and 1st Lt. 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 Gen. 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.

Sen. 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.

Gen. 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," Lt. Gen. Joseph Yakovac Jr., of the Army Acquisition Corps, responded.

Hunter, the committee chair, asked Brig. Gen. 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 Rep. 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.

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