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Bedford soldier killed in Iraq

20-year-old was proud to serve

BEDFORD -- It was the wake-up call everyone dreads. A 6 a.m. knock at the front door yesterday. A dog barking at the window. A police officer standing on the doorstep next to a military official and a priest. Then, a groggy realization. Alma and Brian Hart stood stock-still for a few moments, numb. Their son was dead.

Army Private First Class John Hart, 20, was one of two American soldiers who died in a guerrilla attack late Saturday in Iraq, bringing to 103 the number of US soldiers killed in hostile fire since President Bush declared major combat over in May.

The Army officer who came to the Hart home said the Bedford High School graduate was killed when his patrol, part of the Fourth Infantry Division, was hit with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades outside the northern city of Kirkuk. Military officials reached yesterday afternoon could not comment on the attack, nor confirm Hart's death.

Hart had told his parents in a phone call last week that he was a little uneasy about a special mission he was going on, worried about a lack of protective armor on his company's Humvees. But he told them he was happy to be in Iraq, doing a job he loved and trying to make a difference in the world. He had been especially proud of achieving airborne certification in April.

"He was in good spirits," his father said yesterday afternoon, as dozens of friends and family members gathered around him in his living room.

It was not the first time his son had faced enemy fire, he said. In September, mortar shells landed about 60 feet from where he was standing watch. Just weeks after his arrival in Iraq in July, someone tried to throw grenades into his Humvee, but came up short.

"It's a good thing baseball is our national pastime and not theirs," John Hart wrote in a letter to his parents shortly afterward.

He also told his father at one point how difficult it was to distinguish the enemy in Iraq. He said the only telltale sign of Fedayeen fighters is a tattoo of a heart with wings, usually on the right hand.

But the difficulties of combat did little to undermine the young soldier's resolve. Cocaptain of his high school rifle team, he participated in ROTC all four years of high school, and he talked frequently about his commitment to serve the nation, especially after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Just three months after collecting his high school diploma in June 2002, he entered the Army.

The decision did not sit well with his mother, who had slipped her son's name to a Navy recruiter earlier last year in the hope that her son would choose shipboard duty instead of land warfare. But her son could not be dissuaded. "He was determined to go into the Army," she said yesterday, punching the air with her fist. "I thought it was a stage all little boys go through, but he never really grew out of it."

When an Army recruiter visited the house last spring, Alma Hart told him her son was not mean enough to be in the Army. "He's too nice," she said. But she supported her son's decision in the end, and despite his death 13 months after he entered boot camp, she still supports the war in Iraq. "You know, it's just a dirty job that's got to be done," she said, choking back tears.

Childhood friend Tony Snow said dirty jobs were John Hart's specialty. He once rescued a skunk limping alongside the road at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford. Snow and another friend helped him put it in the car trunk, but they had to release the skunk after a veterinarian refused to treat the animal. The skunk didn't spray them, but all three teenagers had to get rabies shots.

While Hart opened his heart to stray skunks, it was his sisters, 16-year-old Rebecca and 13-year-old Elizabeth, of whom he was particularly protective. His mother said he spent the better part of his senior year fending off Rebecca's suitors. "Maybe she'll be able to date now," his mother said with a sad chuckle.

The war in Iraq has hit home in Bedford, and John Hart's friends said life without him in the town will never be the same.

"He wasn't just another kid," Snow said, shaking with sobs. "He was the best American I ever knew."

Snow plans to sign final paperwork Thursday to join the Army himself.

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

John Hart loved the job. John Hart loved the job.
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