Phillip Hellesto’s wife wanted everyone to know that her husband was an anti-imperialist and a patriot. She wanted to “dispel the notion that radicals cannot be patriots.”

Hellesto was a merchant seaman who was killed on the job working on a U.S. Navy ship, March 31. Phillip’s widow, Sandra Fancher Garcia, was speaking at his memorial service held here in Bellingham, Wash., April 28, Worker’s Memorial Day.

Looking out behind her, out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, the sky was a soft blue and clouds slowly drifted by. Choppy waves covered the bay, dotted by small boats, sailboats, kayaks and canoes, and birds. Off in the distance, the enigmatic shapes of the San Juan Islands on the horizon completed the backdrop to the stories of this man who loved the sea, loved his family – his wife, four-year-old daughter and his two sons, entering into adulthood – who loved his shipmates and all of humanity.

Hellesto, who was assistant to the chief engineer, and another shipmate responded to a fire in an engine room. They donned their fire gear and went in to rescue the three men trapped inside, including the chief engineer. Their heroics saved those they sought to rescue, but took their own lives. They were found later, inside the engine room, overcome by smoke inhalation.

This man who gave his life to save his shipmates, who died serving on a U.S. Navy ship, believed the United States government was imperialist and that government needed to be held accountable, Fancher Garcia said. In fact, Sandra and Phillip met through CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). During the early ’90s they hosted El Salvadorans running from the terror of the El Salvadoran regime, a regime supported by the U.S. government. But when he was called up to serve on the navy ship, Fancher Garcia said, “he said it wouldn’t be right to not go when called after living on the government’s ‘dime’ for three years.”

Representing Phillip’s MEBA union local in Seattle, John McCurty said Hellesto was “a stand-up guy, a delegate to the King County Labor Council who was always there to help new members.”

“He was a man who loved the sea and his family. He loved to be near nature’s elements, which he loved and respected,” McCurty said. “He strove for unions … actively fighting for his shipmates, for all union members and others fighting for justice.”

John Anderson, MEBA representative from San Francisco, remembered Hellesto, saying, “he had a fire and he was a warrior on many fronts.”

Phillip’s step-mom, Barb, remembered him in his youth, “As a teenager, the Hardy Boys ate alone, Phillip ate with Lenin, Trotsky and Marx … I remember he drew Fidel [Castro] on the teen room wall of the church.”

A friend spoke and said that, “to Phillip, it was no contradiction to be a communist and join the navy after high school graduation.”

When he went to sea, Barb said, he sent letters “filled with comments on life’s ironies and [his] own frailties. [Phillip] used his talents to turn inequities into studies for justice.”

Phillip’s life was documented in a multi-media presentation produced by a brother-in-law. His love for family and friends depicted in photos, the many images of him on picket-lines and in demonstrations, and the accompaniment of Billy Bragg’s version of “The Internationale,” among other music from classical to rock to R&B, provided a moving testament to everything that was being said about him.

The depth of Hellesto’s impact on those around him was also expressed by the many people who attended his memorial, from all facets of his life, present and past. A high school friend, who had not been in regular contact with Phil for many years, sent an e-mail reflecting on the life-long lessons he learned from him. They had grown up in a conservative community, he wrote, and Phillip showed him how to question the mores of society, lessons which continue to serve him well. Hellesto especially won his respect, he wrote, because “he recognized racism and treated me as a human being.”

Another friend said that Phillip never forgot him throughout the years. “I’d receive an e-mail from him, I had value to him as a friend. He taught me how to fight – not with fists, but with heart and brains.”

Through the tributes and stories of Phillip Hellesto, a man of action emerges. A man whose social consciousness led him to picketlines for farmworkers, to demonstrations for peace in Central America and the Gulf War, who actively fought for the rights of his shipmates on the job. The world Hellesto stood for was a world of justice and peace. He was an anti-imperialist. He was a radical. And no one can deny he was indeed a patriot.

Chris Lindberg is a contributor and activist from Bellingham, Wash.

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