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MILITARY DEATHS / Army Sgt. David J. Hart, 22, Lake
View Terrace

Rifle team leader is among 3 killed in firefight in Iraq

January 27, 2008|Paloma Esquivel | Times Staff Writer

He was known as the guy with the random stories. "When I was in Tahiti . . ." or "When I was in Sydney . . .," he would tell his Army buddies, who listened intently, if just the slightest bit skeptically.

They needn't have been. As a young man, Sgt. David J. Hart of Lake View Terrace crisscrossed the globe alongside his missionary parents. He'd been to Tahiti, Australia, Mexico, the Philippines, Romania and Hungary, all before enlisting in the Army at age 18.

The years spent traveling the world made Hart unique among young soldiers, instilling in him a deep understanding of the world's diversity and making him particularly careful when communicating with Iraqi citizens, his father, Jack, recalled recently as he sat in an office at Osborne Neighborhood Church in Arleta.

Even in the middle of a war zone, David Hart believed that respect was vital. Shortly before the rifle team leader died in Balad, Iraq, of injuries suffered in a Jan. 8 firefight in nearby Samarra, north of Baghdad, he called his father.

"I'm trying to figure out how to honor the elderly," Hart told his father. He believed that he could reach out to the Iraqi seniors he sometimes came in contact with, his father said.

Two other soldiers died in the firefight: Pfc. Ivan E. Merlo, 19, of San Marcos, Calif.; and Pfc. Phillip J. Pannier, 20, of Washburn, Ill. All three were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Ft. Campbell, Ky.

Hart was born in 1985 at his parents' home in Burbank. The family moved from city to city, living in missionary communities where they built churches and did evangelical work. During their time off, Hart, his brother, Daniel; sister, Sarah; and other children would put on plays and puppet shows to entertain themselves.

As a teenager, Hart toured up and down the California coast, playing the drums and bass in Christian bands. He did missionary work on Native American reservations and in schools. He was 12 when he met his future wife, Nicole, at church. They quickly became best friends, working together on evangelical performances throughout the state, including an anti-drug show prepared for school assemblies in Southern California. She danced; he did the sound.

Hart was 16 when he told Nicole that he planned to marry her. Four years later, they were married at a country club ceremony in Pico Rivera. They were married for 2 1/2 years. Because of his deployments to Iraq, they spent only about a year of that time together.

"I've never respected a man more than my husband," Nicole said. "He was perfect in so many ways. Not a day went by without him telling me how much he loved me."

While his father spoke eloquently about the compassion his son showed toward others, Nicole remembered the man she married as a "warrior," something she did not want lost on family and friends as they mourned.

"David was not a victim," she told the family's pastor when she learned of his death. "He went to serve his country and serve us, and if it meant dying, he was ready for that."

Hart, who was on his second tour of duty in Iraq, was mortally wounded when he rushed into the middle of the firefight to help an injured soldier. For his actions, he was awarded a Bronze Star with valor, one of the military's highest honors.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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