Friday, March 11, 2005

Scott Helvenston Memorial Scholarship

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Scott Helvenston, former Navy SEAL: Contractor Killed in Action

Baquba, Iraq

A friend emailed me from the United States this morning. He said ABC Nightly News and 20/20 had contacted him. Friday night, they will broadcast shows about the four contractors who died in Falluja last year. The public display of brutality by the killers prompted, in large part, the "invasion" of Falluja. My friend said that the killings have also led to political messes, and lawsuits back home.

One of those contractors, Scott Helvenston, was our friend. We all went to high school together. Played football together. We wanted to do something meaningful to remember Scott, and a scholarship seemed like the perfect way to ensure that his memory be a legacy for other kids who have the determination to make it to college but not the resources. Scott was all about giving people a hand up from a tough spot.

So, after his murder last year, we started a memorial scholarship on his behalf. None of us was expecting to see our scholarship efforts impeded at almost every turn by local Florida politics, of all things. The further away a person steps from Winter Haven, the less this makes sense, but apparently there is political pressure on Winter Haven High School not to let us announce the scholarship there. We hoped to make the announcement in about three weeks, on March 31st, 2005, when Scott's friends and family will be there, close to the one-year anniversary of his death.

Our goal was to set up a scholarship fund for a friend and move on with life. None of us are involved in election scuffles or the contractors-in-Iraq mess, but it seems that any mention of a contractor being lost over here causes some people to lose perspective. I can be politically tone-deaf and, in any case, it's difficult to follow Florida storm clouds from Baquba. But from where I stand, it's as if we walked into a room and found ourselves in the middle of someone else's simmering feud. Suddenly, stirred by the draft we created just walking in, the whole room turns on the newcomers.

Resistance to our scholarship effort seemed to be centering around the fact that Scott was "only" a contractor, and no longer on active duty, and so, somehow, less worthy of mention as a casualty of war. We were told as much.

Strange stuff that a simple scholarship announcement can get twisted in a political net. Having followed the events closely, I get the impression that certain people in the Florida government want the event to fade away, to disappear. The whole mess seems to revolve around the idea that using contractors in Iraq is somehow unsavory for the government, and to recognize that contractors die here competes with soldiers' memorials.

But here in Iraq, everyone plays by "big boy rules." Death waits at every corner for everybody. Some contractors have told me flatly that they are here for the money. But, then again, some soldiers who re-upped were equally honest about the bonus factor. Nobody, civilian or military, was drafted to work here. I did not think any less of either group; most people work for money. Somewhere. Some people work for money in Iraq. It's dangerous work, they earn the pay. Nothing unsavory about that. Except for how it draws attention away from something real and worthwhile, at the same time it draws false distinctions in shifting sands.

Scott's public murder prompted us to establish the scholarship, not to ask for a medal on his behalf. His family was no less grief-stricken because of his status as a contractor. Scott died while guarding a military convoy of food destined for Iraqis. Insurgents threw hand grenades into their vehicles, spraying them with bullets while they were engulfed in flames. The world saw the video of mobs dragging their bodies through the streets, even hanging two of them from a bridge. It seemed combat-related at the time.

This was all fresh in everyone's mind a year ago, and we were aware that our bond of friendship might be clouding our vision, so we took the diplomatic route, and tried to ameliorate our difficulties by writing the following letter to President Bush:

26 April 04

To: President George W. Bush
White House, Washington, DC
Fax: 202-456-2461

From: Michael Yon, Eddy Twyford, Richard Cullifer
Winter Haven, Florida


Dear Mr. President:

During the past month I lost two friends in the GWOT in Iraq. On March 30, an old Special Forces teammate, Richard L. Ferguson, died in a vehicle roll-over while his unit was conducting combat operations in Iraq. I was deeply saddened by the news that "Fergy" had been killed. Fergy and I had lunch before he went to Iraq, and I know that, had he been able to see his own fate before him, it would not have lessened his resolve or softened his advice to continue the course despite our personal tragedies.

The next day, I lost another friend, Scott Helvenston, a former Navy SEAL. Scott and I played football in high school in Winter Haven, Florida. Scott was small, but made up for it with attitude and fortitude, and these traits would define his life, and death. Scott was one of the contractors murdered in Falluja on March 31.

I attended Fergy's funeral in Colorado, then Scott's in Florida. At both funerals, there was the overwhelming grief and sadness that occurs during such poignant times, when brave men and women die in service to their country. At both funerals, the families, friends and comrades-in-arms of my two friends stood behind the efforts in Iraq despite their own losses. I hope you continue to sustain the strength that Fergy, Scott, and so many others have had, and that you stay the course.

I received a call on April 22 from another of Scott's friends. His name is Richard Cullifer. Richard had also played high school football with Scott in Winter Haven, and was calling to ask what I thought about setting up a scholarship in Scott's memory. I thought Richard's idea was both excellent and appropriate. The next day, I received an email from another of my close friends, Eddy Twyford, who was also very close with Scott since the days we had all played football together, and Eddy, too, wished to help arrange the memorial scholarship.

The media has been regularly contacting my friend Eddy about Scott, and many are attempting to politicize the tragedy. In his grief, Eddy was at first caught off guard. I suggested to Eddy that he tell the media what he thought Scott would say: Now is not the time to relax our guard, or to back away, but to continue with what we with open eyes know must be done to accomplish our tasks. Scott and Fergy both would be disgusted and ashamed if we backed down now, and they would be proud to know we will not.

Scott was the youngest man ever to complete Navy SEAL training. He was only 17. Can you imagine what that must have taken? He was the kind of man people instinctively sought out whenever they were in new or dangerous waters. This extended into areas one might not first think of when hearing the phrase "Navy SEAL." At the funeral service, I heard a wonderful story that I think conveys the character of Eddy and Scott, and the bond they shared. Eddy, as a new dad, had been left alone with his newborn daughter for the first time, when it became apparent she needed assistance but it was in an area Eddy had no experience. Like a lot of new dads, he was awed and more than a little afraid of this tiny infant in front of him. In a panic, with nowhere to turn for advice, he reached for the phone and called the only person he could think of who would both understand and know what to do. Sure enough, over the phone, Scott Helventson, tough even by Navy SEAL standards, taught Eddy Twyford, former linebacker for the University of Florida, how to change his daughter's diapers.

Mr. President, if you knew much about Scott and the challenges he faced growing up, becoming a Navy SEAL was probably a much-appreciated relief. Scott had every excuse to give up on life, yet he was one of those special people who takes the fibers of adversity and somehow manages to knit a warm sweater. This is not to imply that Scott knew how to knit, but to say that his ability to overcome obstacles was extraordinary. Eddy, Richard, myself and others, wish to commemorate Scott by helping kids get to college, giving them the opportunity to live his legacy: Never Give Up.

It happens that a large ceremony honoring our active duty members will occur—by sheer coincidence—in our beloved hometown, Winter Haven, Florida, on May 1. It was on the Winter Haven High School football team that Scott, Richard, Eddy, and myself—along with many others—became friends.

State Rep. Baxter Troutman is organizing the event and he expects between 10,000 and 15,000 people to attend, and up to 1,800 soldiers and their families. During this ceremony we would like to announce our intentions of creating the scholarship fund in the spirit of Scott's achievements, and in Scott's honor. Yet, we are having difficulty getting a return call from Mr. Troutman's office. We understand that his staff must be extremely busy with the preparations and we are concerned that this opportunity may fall through the cracks. Any help that you can lend in our efforts will be greatly appreciated.

I was told that the First Lady and Governor Bush plan to attend "Operation Troop Salute" on May 1. We hope that Mrs. Bush and "Jeb" feel mighty welcome in Winter Haven.


Michael Yon
Eddy Twyford
Richard Cullifer

It's been nearly a year since we sent that letter. We never heard back from the President, and school officials declined all our requests to announce the scholarship at the high school we all attended.

Well, we may have failed at diplomacy and politics, but we also didn't let the politics stop us. The scholarship is set.

Our goal is to help kids like Scott get through college. The Scott who met that terrible end was an extraordinary man who refused to give up. The scholarship that bears his name will be looking out for kids with his kind of determination.

The scholarship is actually administered as a "pool" by county government. For every $8,000 that goes into the fund, $500 per year will go to the scholarship. Our goal is to reach a scholarship level of $20,000 per year. To do this, the fund needs to reach $320,000. Every donation will get us all closer to the goal of a lasting legacy for an unforgettable friend.

Donations are tax-deductible, and should be sent to:

Polk Education Foundation
Scott Helvenston Memorial Scholarship
1530 Shumate Drive
Bartow, Florida 33831-0391

Tax ID 59-2956529