Stephen "Scott" Helvenston was Hollywood's image of a soldier -- blond, bronzed and broad shouldered. In fact, the 38-year-old former Navy SEAL trained health-conscious Californians how to pump iron like commandos and coached movie stars to play the role of combat-ready recruits.
Days after the private security contractor and three colleagues were killed by an angry Iraqi mob, friends and colleagues recalled Helvenston as a man whose energy and athleticism helped him parlay his military service into work as a film consultant, a fitness guru and an international hired gun. But as family members prepared Friday for the return of Helvenston's remains, relatives lamented that the patriotic soldier and devoted father they once knew had become a symbol of American foreign policy.
"You know what they did to him? I can't talk about it," his mother, Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, of Leesburg, Fla., told the Orlando Sentinel. "What happened to him is so horrendous."
Helvenston's ex-wife, Patricia Irby, was en route to Florida on Friday, where services are being planned.
Helvenston, of Oceanside, was the divorced father of two children, Kyle, 14, and Kelsey, 12, and had served 12 years in the U.S. Navy's elite special forces. He was working for a private security firm, Blackwater Security Consulting, when he and three colleagues were ambushed in their cars and killed by rocket-propelled grenades. In grisly images broadcast around the globe, a crowd of Iraqis in Fallouja hacked at their remains and hung two charred corpses from the trestles of a bridge.
Friends found the images difficult to comprehend because they believed Helvenston to be unstoppable.
"The guy pretty much didn't know the word 'quit,' " said Markus Heon, a physical trainer based in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. "If he were to go down, I wish he had gone down in a different way. I know, for a fact, if he did, he would have taken a lot of those guys with him."
A statement released by Helvenston's family said he grew up in Florida, attended high school there and joined the service at age 17.
"He prided himself on strength, agility, speed, flexibility, balance, determination and toughness," the statement said. "Scott never quit anything in his life. After he broke his legs in a parachute jump, he tried to walk away from the scene."
"He was always really taking care of people, which is what he was doing there" in Iraq, said a family friend, Alice W. Brown, 51, of Del Mar. "Taking care of people -- that was Scott."
She describes how she and her family would meet him to go rock climbing.
"He would have a whole pile of children," she recalled. "I used to tell him, 'Scott, you ought to be teaching high school PE.' Because he was like the Pied Piper.... He just gave and gave and gave."
Brown described him as a man of dignity and morals.
"I had that sick feeling yesterday morning that Scott was one of those guys," Brown said. "All Americans are just outraged about this. I hope we'll send more troops over there. I think we're just understaffed over there. We need to reinstate shock and awe over there."
After leaving the Navy, Helvenston settled in Oceanside and helped start a fitness consulting firm, Amphibian Athletics, that promised a Navy SEAL-style workout for his customers. He also found success in Hollywood as a stuntman and as an instructor for movie and television actors.
His credits include the movie "G.I. Jane," in which he showed Demi Moore how to endure the rigors of military training, and the television shows "Combat Missions," and "Man vs. Beast."
Friends and family say his serious side was evident in his work for Blackwater Security.
"A lot of people are saying 'Do you think he went over there for the money?,' " said Keith Woulard, who worked with Helvenston as an instructor at the Navy's Basic Underwater Demolition School in Coronado and later was with him on the "G.I. Jane" set. "Of course he did. But that wasn't his main goal. It was to go over there and help out and put his knowledge to use."
Blackwater Security employs former soldiers and intelligence officers to provide armed security and risk assessment to governments and corporations worldwide.
The North Carolina-based company is one of dozens of private security firms that operate in Iraq, and employs former military specialists who inhabit a murky and violent world of armed conflict, private and public contracts and intelligence gathering.
"Mobile security teams stand ready to be deployed around the world with little notice in support of U.S. national security objectives, private or foreign interests," reads the company's website.
The other victims have been identified as Jerko "Jerry" Zovko, 32 of Ohio; Wesley J. Batalona, 48, of Hawaii; and Michael Teague, 38, of Clarksville, Tenn.
Zovko spoke five languages and joined the Army at 19. "He loved people," said his mother, Danica Zovko. "He wanted the world to be without borders, for everybody to be free and safe."