Advocates for the Troops

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The war in Iraq has killed more than 4,100 US troops. Most of their families have grieved, and then tried to get back to their normal lives.

But for one family in Bedford, a town north-west of Boston, the tragic loss has turned their lives into a mission.

Since John Hart died, his parents have been advocating for safer equipment and better medical supplies for soldiers in battle.

WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov has their story.


MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The Harts' home in Bedford has an American flag hanging outside with a gold star banner. It signifies their son died in service to his country.

In their living room, Alma Hart has devoted the bay window to him: Army Private First Class John Hart.

ALMA HART: Here's his medals. That's the bronze star for bravery and this is his purple heart.

BRADY-MYEROV: Brian Hart says 20-year-old John was killed in Iraq while on patrol in an unarmored Humvee in October 2003.

BRIAN HART: They were trying to find insurgents that had been firing rockets at a base and the insurgents found them.

BRADY-MYEROV: Anyone who's lost a loved one will say it forever changes their lives. But in the case of the Harts, everything about their mission and purpose has changed. It started a week before their son was killed. John called home from Iraq and asked his father for help to get more body armor and armor for the Humvees he was driving in. His mother Alma remembers the call well.


ALMA HART: As soon as Brian hung up he told me what John had said and he's pacing back and forth across the living room, who should we contact what can we do that won't have feedback on John without getting John into trouble And a week later john was dead and it was ok we can do anything we need to do now. They can't hurt us any more than this.

BRADY-MYEROV: Around this time, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a group of soldiers who were complaining they had insufficient protection, that the army was producing extra armor for Humvees as fast as possible. Brian Hart didn't accept that explanation. He researched the vehicles production, called the plant and spoke with workers who said they were sitting idle.

BRIAN HART: Come to find out the plant had not received the purchase orders, and that was when I made the determination with Alma to resign from my job and become an advocate for equipment for soldiers for what we thought would be a few months. We thought it was a miscommunication and misunderstanding and of course it turned out it wasn't.

BRADY-MYEROV: Hart didn't give up after a few months. He's spent almost five years calling for better equipment for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hart has worked with powerful allies, including Senator Ted Kennedy. At his son's funeral, he asked the Senator why a third of the troops didn't have body armor and why there were only 440 armored Humvees in Iraq. Kennedy held a Congressional hearing. Six months later all troops had body armor and in about two years there were almost 20,000 armored Humvees in Iraq. And the Hart family found a new calling.

BRIAN HART: It was sort of baffling I mean we built pharmacy automation equipment we had no experience in these matters. But John as a 20-year-old believed you could make a difference as a person and he and the other soldiers who enlisted with him also felt that way. You know we believe that ordinary people can make a difference and that we have an obligation to the country and in particular to the soldiers we sent to a war.

BRADY-MYEROV: More than 4,100 US soldiers have been killed in this war, but only a handful of their relatives have taken on advocacy like the Harts. Roger Charles, a retired Marine Colonel now with the advocacy group Soldiers for the Truth, worked with the Harts on increasing the production of armored Humvees.

ROGER CHARLES: Brian and Alma were really the catalyst and by getting connected with Senator Kennedy and by his making the kind of commitment he were able to make a real difference and people lives were saved.

BRADY-MYEROV: Hart works on issues by thoroughly researching them and posting what he finds on his blog. Then active duty soldiers and National Guard families call him and he encourages them to contact Congress. He also works directly with the staff of several congressional leaders, including former congressman Marty Meehan who was on the armed services committee. Meehan calls Brian a tenacious one man fact-finding mission.

MARTY MEEHAN: With Brian he was very engaging because he knew what he what he was talking about he talked about failing to up armor Humvees. I got a sense from him that his position on the war had changed because of the fact that he felt we weren't doing enough as a country to make sure when we went to war we prepared and we weren't prepared and I think he knew that.

BRADY-MYEROV: The Harts have influenced, in some small part, billions of dollars of defense spending. But they have never received money for their work and haven't set up a non-profit to raise funds. They've been living off their savings and are propelled by the calls and notes of thanks that come from soldiers and their families. Alma picks up a photo in their living room of a soldier in Iraq kneeling in front of a blown up Humvee holding a hand written sign. Here's what it says:

ALMA HART: Thanks to Brian and Alma Hart and Senator Kennedy and everyone who care for our wellbeing and makes an effort. You have saved lives.

BRADY-MYEROV: After bringing the public's attention to unarmored Humvees, Hart worked on getting armor for trucks driven by National Guard soldiers. Then he learned the Army lacked in-field tourniquets. Hart says the Army's own studies showed that 15 percent of casualties could have been saved by the issuing single handed tourniquets and blood clotting agents. Following his advocacy, the army started issuing them to every solider in 2006.

At times, his whole family has joined in on the effort to help the troops. His teenage daughters, Elizabeth and Rebecca, have made care packages for soldiers. Alma works with police and other first responders educating them about the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

ALMA HART: The two signature wounds of this war is PTSD and traumatic brain injury both of which you can walk around with.

BRADY-MYEROV: Now Brian Hart is focusing on getting Congress to investigate why the Marines are canceling orders for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles or MRAPS. They are armored fighting vehicles designed to resist IEDs and ambushes. Defense Secretary Robert Gates credits them with saving lives and has made then a top priority. The Army has ordered 12,000, but Hart says the Marines scaled their order back by nine percent, which he says is indicative of the backward thinking in the military.

BRIAN HART: Believe it or not the Marines have canceled their orders for M-RAPS claiming they are too heavy for an amphibious assault operation as if we were going to somehow invade Iowa Jima again. I mean the reality of the war is that Marine and soldiers needs M-RAP to survive.

BRADY-MYEROV: The Marines say they reduced their order because of the improving security situation in Iraq. Recently Brian Hart, the advocate, got his first defense contract. He and his brother started a company in 2005 building robots to dismantle car bombs and IEDS. In June they received $800,000 from the Pentagon. But Hart says his commercial venture won't keep him quiet on troop safety issues.

BRIAN HART: There's a point where you realize you have nothing to lose and that you can't life in fear if you want to life in freedom and having the courage to act is probably the one thing the dead can't do and it is our obligation, our obligation to the soldiers we sent to war to advocate for them as a citizen in this country.

BRADY-MYEROV: For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on July 21, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.