SHE has put boots on the ``contras' '' feet. And now, convinced the rebels fighting to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government are working for her freedom as well as their own, she has bought them a helicopter. ``I just couldn't stand to think of those brave men dying on the battlefield because they had no means of getting to [medical] help,'' says Ellen Garwood, an elderly but razor-sharp Texan who vigorously defends what she calls the ``cause of world freedom.''
Mrs. Garwood achieved national notoriety last week when retired Army Gen. John K. Singlaub disclosed to the New York Times that the Austin author and heiress had donated $65,000 toward purchase of a medical evacuation helicopter. The contribution made Garwood the largest donor to General Singlaub's Council for World Freedom, a Phoenix-Ariz.-based anticommunist organization helping to raise private donations for the contras.
Seated in the book-stuffed library of the Austin home she shares with husband, W. St. John Garwood, a retired Texas Supreme Court justice, Garwood talks of buying a helicopter for insurgents in Central America as others might tell of buying footballs for an ill-equipped local team. In her eyes, it's a civic duty.
``The general [Singlaub] told me he had a chance to buy a helicopter relatively cheap, but he still needed $65,000,'' recalls Garwood, who keeps up with the contras' cause through a network of organizations, newsletters, and like-minded individuals. Earlier she had donated $50,000 to buy boots for the contras.
``I didn't say right away that I'd give [the money] to him. I said I'd try to raise it among people I knew,'' she adds. But she wasn't very successful.
``People said they supported the cause, but that it is something for the government to do.''
``I agree that it is,'' she says. ``But when you have a Congress that doesn't do its duty, its like when your house is burning down and the fire department doesn't come. The private citizen has to act.''
Garwood says she did raise a little -- $500 from an Austin real estate dealer, a few hundred from a Texas rancher. But in the end, ``after checking how much I had left in the bank account,'' she decided to give the money herself.
In her honor, the helicopter will be named the Lady Ellen.
The fact that Mrs. Garwood found raising even a few hundred dollars so difficult, even among sympathetic acquaintances, appears to fly in the face of recent claims that millions in private American donations -- up to $25 million, when rolled in with foreign contributions -- have reached the contras.
In light of her experience, where is that kind of money coming from? Garwood says that, first of all, the news media have probably exaggerated the figure, ``as they usually do.'' And some of the donations actually come in the form of desperately needed goods, she adds.
But she also guesses that the Nicaraguan Freedom Fund, founded by former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon earlier this year, has had greater success in filling the donation plate. ``Bill Simon knows a lot of millionaires in the East,'' she says. By contrast, she believes ``little Austin'' has relatively few wealthy people, and in addition ``is rather socialistically minded because of the University [of Texas] presence.''
She adamantly rejects the suggestion furthered by some observers of Central America that part of the money may still be coming through American intelligence organizations. Such funding was cut off last year, although Congress recently reversed itself and voted $27 million in humanitarian assistance.
``We are a country of law, not of whim,'' she says, insisting that US government assistance ended when Congress ``so foolishly'' voted to cut off aid.
She maintains with equal fervor that Lady Ellen will be used only for humanitarian missions, in accord with the limits Congress has placed on public assistance.
``If General Singlaub found out it was being used for military operations, he'd withdraw it,'' she says.
Despite this fastidiousness, Garwood has no qualms in stating that the desired end of her assistance is to help the contras overthrow the Sandinista government. ``Negotiation is not a valid alternative,'' she says. ``Negotiation with communists always comes out in their favor.''
She says overthrowing a foreign government is justified when, as she believes is the case in Nicaragua, world freedom is threatened.
``If they . . . [`they' in her speech almost always referring to Soviet-backed communists]. If they are allowed to take Central America, then we are threatened. And if the United States, the world's last hope, is threatened, then freedom everywhere is threatened.''
Garwood credits her father, the late William L. Clayton, with teaching her the importance of keeping watch over world events.
Mr. Clayton, a cotton merchant and undersecretary of state for President Truman, is said to have come up with the idea for the Marshall Plan. Garwood has written a biography of her father.
``All my life I heard the merits of free trade and little government interference,'' she says. ``My father worried about the European countries going under to communism. And now that is exactly the threat, all over again, in Central America.''
If public-opinion polls show little relish among Americans for increased US involvement in Central America, it's because of the picture they've received from the media, says Garwood.
``Dan Rather said he found things to be lovely in Cuba, but if it's so, why are so many trying to get out?'' But she believes the media are ``starting to wake up''; she says ``even the New York Times, which has usually spiked anything positive about the US, is starting to show interest in our side.''
She also believes that congressional opinion will shortly evolve until more than just humanitarian assistance is provided to the contras.
In the meantime, Garwood says she will continue to battle not only for the contras, but for other causes promoting freedom around the world: space weapons to foil any Soviet missile attack, and the ``freedom fighters'' in Afghanistan and Angola.
This last example leads to a final question. If the blacks of South Africa called themselves ``freedom fighters,'' would Mrs. Garwood raise money for their cause?
Her initial response is that there are ``many moderate blacks there who do not want a sudden change in the government. They know that apartheid will end in time, and it will.'' Yet a turbulent revolution could, she says, land South Africa in the hands of the Soviets.
Pausing briefly, as if dissatisfied with that answer, she sits forward in her chair. ``What we must remember is to do as my father taught me, that is to stand back and look at the world picture.
``Now a sudden end to apartheid is not needed to safeguard the freedom of the whole world,'' says Mrs. Garwood, a pleasant smile coming over her face.
``But what we have going on in Nicaragua [with the Sandinistas] must be stopped. Because what they're doing is very definitely a threat to the freedom of the whole world.''