Monday, August 07, 2006

Brian Hart: Gold Star Dad and America Hero

Huffington Post
Brian Hart: Gold Star Dad and America Hero
Paul Rieckhoff

On the wall of my office in New York, above my desk, is a printout of a digital photo that was taken in Iraq two years ago. It's a young American Soldier standing next to a totaled Humvee -- the front end is smashed, the tires flat, the body panels curled like crushed soda cans. But the passenger compartment, cloaked in heavy bomb-proof armor, is intact. The Soldier is holding a handmade cardboard sign that reads "Thanks Brian and Alma Hart, Senator Kennedy and everybody else who cares for our wellbeing and makes an effort. You have saved lives."

The Humvee drove over a roadside bomb -- the crude but effective weapon of choice for the insurgency in Iraq. In the early days of the war many troops died in ambushes or bomb blasts while riding in Humvees that lacked protective armor.

Brian and Alma Hart's son, 20-year-old Private First Class John Hart, was one of those Soldiers. Riding in a canvas-topped Humvee, John was killed in October 2003 during a firefight with Saddam loyalists near Kirkuk.

For members of the military and their families, the four years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a constant struggle against adversity and heartache that most Americans can't comprehend. For Brian and Alma Hart, the tragedy of losing a son was compounded by the knowledge that his death, and the deaths of hundreds of other troops, may have been prevented had John been riding in an adequately armored Humvee.

In the three years that have passed since John's death, Brian and Alma have traveled the hardest possible road to become American heroes. I'm sure they would have rather never had the opportunity, but in the midst of their grief, they stepped up to the plate and did everything they possibly could to prevent their family's tragedy from being repeated.

Brian has become a one-man, pro-troop, political machine. He has appeared on CNN, met with Senators, held press conferences and created an excellent blog -- all to bring attention to critical troop issues. He used his son's death benefit funds to develop a robotic device to help soldiers safely push IEDs off the road. He lobbied long and hard for more funding to armor Humvees and to put an end to the bureaucratic foot-dragging that was preventing progress on an issue that clearly needed immediate attention. Three months after John's death, in January of 2004, the Army finally agreed to double its order of up-armored Humvees. Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy made special note of Brian in the Boston Globe, calling him a man who, "feels a desperate sense of loss that he doesn't want to happen to another parent."

Two years later, Brian is still working to ease the burden for other families who have shared his experience. An email came in to IAVA earlier this month from a woman whose uncle had lost his son in Iraq. She was looking for a bereavement support group for him, and I forwarded her request to a number of folks I thought might help. Brian, who happens to live in a Massachusetts town not far from this newly grieving family, quickly responded.

"I'm a gold star dad. My son John was killed in Oct 03. I live in Bedford MA. There are several families like ours (yours and ours) in the area. These are terrible times. The world seems to move on around you like nothing is happening, yet we are being wrenched apart in silence... How can Alma (my wife) and I help?"

To a complete stranger Brian offered two different numbers where they could be reached, and said that he was out of town, but would be back soon. Incidentally, the Harts were in New Jersey, attending the national conference of Gold Star Mothers -- mothers who have lost a son or daughter in service to their country.

"Sometimes it helps to be with folks who have walked the same road," Brian wrote of the conference.

A week later, Brian sent me a short note saying he'd been in touch with the fallen Soldier's father, and that they'd had a good, long talk.

Why is it that some of the most outstanding American heroes are born out of such horrible circumstances? Haven't we already asked enough of them? Brian and Alma Hart certainly never wished for such an opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of other Troops' families. But when it became clear that American Troops had been sent to Iraq without adequate Humvee armor, Brian and Alma didn't rest until the problem had been corrected. It may have been too late for their son, but for the Soldier in the picture above my desk, and for his family back home, that made all the difference.

I hope that Brian and Alma take some solace in the knowledge that their tireless work on behalf of our men and women in uniform has saved lives. But I know their grief can never go away completely. They know all too well the pain of loss that has been visited on 2578 families in this country since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. So they continue to do what they can to lessen the burden, with gestures as simple as a phone call from someone who knows what it's like.