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Nothing, Not Even Death, Can Destroy Their Bond

Three best buddies gather to mourn the Iraq slaying of their 'Fourth Musketeer.'

April 14, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

BUSHNELL, Fla. — The four friends, best buddies since their football-playing days at a small-town high school, came together Tuesday for one final time on a muggy, overcast afternoon at a cemetery here.

There was Eddy Twyford, now a salesman for a pharmaceutical company. Jimmy Tharpe, the smart one the others had cheated off of, flew in from Australia, where he runs a professional basketball team. Mark Rafuls, who started a medical supplies company, drove up from South Florida, where he lives with his wife, a pediatrician.

They came to mourn, celebrate and bury their friend, Stephen "Scott" Helvenston, 38, a former Navy SEAL killed in Iraq. And through laughter and hot tears, they commemorated a friendship that for more than two decades had outlasted moves, marriages, divorces, career changes and the other vicissitudes of adult life.

"We didn't have our fathers raise us, just our moms, and that more or less was our common bond," Rafuls, 40, said as he choked back sobs. "We were friends and brothers and fathers to each other, and it's been that way ever since."

"Marriages. Mortgages. A lot of good things can happen to you as you get older, a lot of bad things as well," said Twyford, who turns 40 next month. "I knew no matter what happened in my life, I could call up any of them, and I did."

"They're still the Four Musketeers," said Helen Helvenston of Ocala, Fla. In fact, she said, her grandson's memorial service and burial Tuesday at Florida National Cemetery was delayed so Tharpe could make the journey from Perth, Australia.

In one of the countless shards of collateral damage spun off by the Iraq war, the tightly knit friendship forged by the Winter Haven High Blue Devil teammates was rocked forever March 31, when Helvenston and three co-workers for a private security company were ambushed by rebels in Fallouja. Their burned bodies were mutilated and dragged through the streets. The corpses of two of them were strung up from a bridge across the Euphrates River.

At the memorial service in a nearby Leesburg church, its altar still covered with white Easter lilies, Father Kevin F. Donlon noted that Helvenston had been escorting a convoy carrying food to hungry Iraqis.

"Scott was committed to service to the very least, and he suffered at the hands of thugs, just as Jesus did," the Episcopal priest said.

Helvenston, who lived in Oceanside, had spent 12 years in the Navy's elite special forces and was the divorced father of two children, Kyle, 14, and Kelsey, 12. In his post-Navy life, he had found a new calling in Hollywood as a stuntman and instructor for film and television actors; he also helped start a physical fitness company that promised its customers a commando-style workout.

But to Rafuls, Helvenston was the warm and nonjudgmental friend who had assured him that everything would be OK despite the difficulty he and his wife, Jacqueline, were having trying to have a child. The South Miami couple eventually adopted a boy from Russia, who is now 3.

"Scott had told me not to worry, that I would one day have my son," Rafuls said. "I am going to make sure that my son one day knows about it."

Tharpe, 40, said that after he moved to Australia from the San Diego area three years ago, Helvenston became a surrogate father to his children.

When the former teammates were still both living in Southern California, Tharpe said, they would take their children camping and do other outdoor activities together.

"We spoke a lot, via e-mails and the phone," Tharpe said. "The last e-mail I got from Scott was two days before it happened."

The three surviving friends -- all members of Winter Haven High's Class of 1982 -- said they readily accepted the younger Helvenston because of his personal magnetism and tireless energy. They also respected the physical prowess that, according to his family, helped him become the youngest SEAL in history. Scott, a native of Ocala, transferred into the high school in 10th grade, and "by first period, everybody in school knew who he was, because he said he could bench-press 240 pounds," Rafuls said.

The 5-foot-9 Helvenston played defensive back for the Blue Devils. Tharpe and Rafuls played quarterback, and Twyford was a linebacker. When the other three graduated and left for college, Helvenston seemed to lose all interest in school, Twyford said. "Within 12 months, he was a Navy SEAL."

When Twyford got hurt and was cut from the University of Florida football team, he was devastated and called on his friends for moral support. It was far from the only time.

"When I finally realized I was going to propose to my wife, I couldn't wait to tell those guys," said Twyford, the only member of the group still living in Winter Haven. "I can remember when Jimmy's kids were born, when Scott's kids were born."

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