Mothers Say Mistakes Led to Fallujah Tragedy
April 7, 2005 — -- It has been one year since the world watched on television some of the most brutal images from the war in Iraq. Four American civilians were shot dead in Fallujah. Their bodies were set on fire, dragged through the streets and then hung from a bridge. Now, an ABC News investigation brings to light allegations that a series of grave errors led to the tragic event -- one which set off months of some of the worst fighting and losses of life of the Iraq conflict.
The four victims worked for a little-known and secretive private security company called Blackwater. At least 11 of its employees have been killed in Iraq. The mother of one of the employees, Scott Helvenston, says the company cut corners protecting its men. In a lawsuit, Katy Helvenston-Wettengel and families of the other victims are alleging the men were sent on the mission at the last minute, undermanned and ill-equipped, and that the company has tried to cover up its errors.
"I know Blackwater didn't pull the trigger," Helvenston-Wettengel said. "But they put Scotty and these other three guys in that spot at that time, with no way to protect themselves. And as far as I'm concerned they might as well have done it themselves."
Scott Helvenston spent 12 years in the elite U.S. Navy special forces unit called the SEALs. A blond, handsome 38-year-old, he had a physique that stood out even among the hardened military men around him.
But transition to a civilian life didn't come easy for Helvenston. He worked in Hollywood as an adviser on several films, including the Demi Moore film "G.I. Jane." Helvenston later produced a series of Navy SEALs exercise videos, but they didn't sell well. He briefly appeared in a reality television show called "Combat Missions," which featured competitions between former special forces members. The show was quickly canceled.
Last year, with two children and an ex-wife to support, Helvenston signed on with Blackwater for $600 a day. Among its many contracts, Blackwater provides the heavily armed security guards for top U.S. officials. Helvenston told his mother he would be in the security detail for Paul Bremer, the U.S. presidential envoy to Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
But that never happened. Instead, according to this mother, Helvenston was sent out on convoy duty, protecting a load of kitchen supplies. He called his mother before he left on the mission, leaving her a final message on her answering machine to tell her that he loved her.
On March 31, 2004, everything changed.
Helvenston-Wettengel, at home in Florida, watched in horror as the gruesome images of bodies flashed on the news.
"They said, 'Oh, it's contractors, civilian contractors,' and I thought they were talking about maybe the oil fields and stuff, those kind of contractors," she said.
But as the hours passed, she knew something was terribly wrong with her son. "I knew he would have called me if he was OK," she said. "I knew, I knew he was gone."
Helvenston-Wettengel was notified of her son's death by a Blackwater representative at 3 a.m. the next day.
In the difficult year after losing her son, Helvenston-Wettengel says she sought out more details about what really happened last March 31. Searching on the Internet, she found Donna Zovko, the mother of another victim, 32-year-old former Army Ranger Jerry Zovko. Together they asked Blackwater for further details of their sons' deaths. They say they were dumbfounded by the response.
"At one point, we were actually told -- my [other] son, my husband and myself -- that if we wanted to see the paperwork of how my son and his co-workers were killed that we'd have to sue them," said Zovko, of Cleveland.
"They told me the same thing," Helvenston-Wettengel said. "They said we'd have to sue them, so OK, we're gonna sue you."
Along with family members of the two other Blackwater employees in the convoy, Mike Teague and Wesley Batalona, Zovko and Helvenston-Wettengel brought suit against the company, and they say they found themselves confronted with some troubling new information.
One startling discovery was that when their sons were dispatched on the dangerous mission, they were not sent out in heavily armored vehicles. Armored vehicles, which cost about $100,000 each, are able to deflect small-arms fire. Instead, the men were sent out in simple SUVs with only reinforced back bumpers, according to Helvenston-Wettengel.
"I'm a very forgiving person, but I don't think I will ever forgive them for that. And I think it was all about greed and the dollar," Helvenston-Wettengel said.
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