This is not meant to be construed as an attack against the editors of news publications. This is simply an account of what happened to me after I found out that Scott Helvenston was one of the four Americans who had been killed, dismembered, and hung from a bridge in Iraq.
I met Scott in the spring of 1996 on the set of G.I. Jane. I played the part of a Navy SEAL drill instructor. Scott, a retired Navy SEAL, was one of our technical advisors on the film. I watched Scott run the obstacle course like it was built for six-year-olds. I saw him do some ridiculous number of pull-ups in two minutes. Another Navy SEAL told me that Scott had won a few gold medals in a U.S. Armed Forces Olympic competition. This did not surprise me.
I thought to myself, Why didn’t they just ask this guy to play my part? He is the guy. The real guy. And better looking.
Four months later, when I left Beaufort, South Carolina, I never saw or spoke to Scott Helvenston again.
I first learned about Scott’s death from a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. I screened his call. He left a phone number with a Florida area code on my answering machine. He didn’t say why he was calling. I was pretty sure it was a prank or a telemarketing thing or one of my friends disguising his voice, but I was curious—if a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel really wanted to talk to me, I wanted to know what about. So I called him back. He asked me if I was the same David Warshofsky who portrayed a Navy SEAL instructor in the movie G.I. Jane. I said that I was and he told me the paper was doing a piece on Scott Helvenston. He then informed me that Scott was one of the four Americans who had been killed in Fallujah, Iraq. I looked down at the floor and there, to the side of my desk, was the front page of the New York Times with a color photograph of two charred and dismembered corpses hanging from the green steel girders of a bridge over the Euphrates river. I felt numb. I knew one of those guys. One of those countless pictures of dead bodies I’d seen on television, in newspapers and magazines, from Vietnam to Iraq and every conflict in between, was someone I knew. I had talked to him. I’d worked with him. I learned from him. I ate and drank with him. Somewhere in a box in my closet are some photographs of Scott and me. He told me where he lived near San Diego. I think I met his wife. I think he met mine.
The reporter wondered if I would like to share any memories I had of Scott for an article. I continued to talk but my head was filled with cotton.The reporter asked me if I knew how to get in touch with many of the other actors in the film. I told him I didn’t. He asked me if I was still an actor. I said yes.Then he asked if there were other films I had been in that might be of interest to their readers. I told him to look me up online, it was all listed there. The conversation seemed pointless and I made no comment worth printing.
After I hung up the phone, I lay down on my son’s bed and tried to nap, but couldn’t. I looked at my last issue of the Sunday magazine of a Big Time East Coast Daily and turned to the last page, where they print a “Lives”–type column. I decided that I would try to write a “Lives”–type article. Why? Because when I see a printed list of the six hundred names of the Americans who’ve been killed in Iraq in the past year, I don’t read it. I don’t know anybody who is fighting or working in Iraq. It doesn’t connect to me. Those people are not my people. Yet I knew Scott Helvenston. He wasn’t my friend.We didn’t grow up together in Florida. We never exchanged phone numbers. But a man had been dismembered and hung from a bridge spanning the Euphrates, and I knew him.
This was a Thursday. I spent Friday thinking about what I wanted to say. I wrote a first draft on Saturday and sent it to three friends.They told me to keep working on it, I was definitely onto something.I finished a third draft by Monday and called my editor friend at a monthly glossy magazine. He told me to send it to him and he would gladly pass it on to his contact at a reputable daily newspaper. My friend read it and wrote me back on Tuesday. He thought the piece was great but had two editing suggestions. One was a cut. My father had been a doctor in the Vietnam War, spent a tour over there sewing up marines and even (this was the First Cavalry in 1965) treating South Vietnamese, until a woman who had been booby-trapped came in and blew up the operating tent. At the time, my father had been two minutes away from treating her, finishing up with another patient in the tent next door. I referenced my father and Vietnam because it was my only personal experience with war.
My editor friend suggested that my article was not about my dad. He was right and I cut that part. He also said that my article was a little short (by one hundred to two hundred words) and that if I wanted to tinker some more I might add a personal story that I remembered about Scott.This was also an excellent suggestion: I wrote about the time that the G.I.Jane film crew was setting up a big shot on the beach and the sun was blazing. I found a shady spot to wait in; Scott came over and sat down next to me. He asked me how I was doing and if I was looking forward to going home. I asked him if he could tell me any good stories about his days as a covert operative. He laughed. “You know, man, in eleven years, I never did anything that was that dangerous.That’s why I got out.”
This addition took me another day. I returned the piece to my editor friend on Wednesday. Five days to get a final draft of twelve hundred words. My friend said the rewrite really helped and that he was passing it along to his contact at the reputable daily paper. The following is what transpired electronically in chronological order:
From: [Glossy Monthly Editor]
To: [East Coast Daily Editor]
Subject: FW: re-write
Hi [East Coast Daily Editor]. It’s [Glossy Monthly Editor] writing. I’m forwarding a piece that a friend of mine wrote that he wanted to submit to the [“Lives”–esque] column. Hope you don’t mind sending it on to the right person. It’s an interesting piece, I think.The writer, an actor, knew one of the security consultants who was killed in Fallujah (sp?), who had been a military advisor on a movie our friend was in.The writer’s name is David Warshofsky. Hope you’re well. My best to your husband and the kids.
—[Glossy Monthly Editor]
Subject: FW: re-write
From: [Editor at Glossy Monthly]
To: [Editor at East Coast Daily]
Hi. I just sent a note to [East Coast Daily Editor] and got back a note saying she was on maternity leave and to get in touch with you with any questions— and I thought, I know her! Hope you’re well. This is a submission for the [“Lives”–esque] column. Hope you don’t mind handling.
[Glossy Monthly Editor]
To: [Personal History FeatureEditor]
From:[Editor at East Coast Daily]
Subject: Fwd: FW: re-write
[Personal History Feature] submission care of [Editor at Glossy Monthly]. By an actor who once worked on a movie with a military advisor who was recently killed in Iraq.
I am the editor of the [Personal History Feature] section. Thanks very much for the look at this piece. I wish I’d gotten it Monday because it is certainly something I would have considered for this week’s close but since we missed that deadline, and have a two-week lag time (next week we close the issue of April 25). I think it’s best to try to publish this somewhere else—fast. Try [another “Lives”–esque section in a Glossy Newsweekly] if you wish. Or the Life editor at [Major Online Daily].
Best of luck,
[Personal History Feature Editor]
Sorry, but I can’t use this piece for the Sunday section.We’re full up for this Sunday, and the following would be too late. [West Coast Daily Op-Editor] will have to make the call about the daily op-ed.
[West Coast Daily Editor]
Thanks very much for submitting your piece on Falloujah to us. It’s quite a nice piece, but the timeframe isn’t right at this point. So much more is happening and has happened in Iraq and on the homefront that it is just a little too late to fit our needs and the news. Again, we appreciate getting a chance to see it. Best regard [West Coast Daily Op-Editor]
Thanks, David, but we’ve decided to pass on this.
—[National Newsweekly Editor]
From the first email I received from an editor to the last, four more days transpired. I had had an idea about something, a connection between a phone call and a photograph. But the news moves fast and more people died in Iraq and even though their bodies weren’t mutilated and hung from a bridge, my piece about the dead person I’d known was written too slowly. I didn’t know there was a deadline on dead people. But I missed it. I missed my deadline. I missed it the minute I hung up the phone from the newspaper in Florida, lay down on my son’s bed to take a nap, and couldn’t fall asleep. ✯