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Va. community struggles with how to honor SEALs shot down in Afghanistan

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VIRGINIA BEACH — They lived in tranquil suburban neighborhoods like so many other Americans, in homes with vinyl siding and close-cropped yards, their streets and cul de sacs shaded by thin, newly planted trees.

Across the military region of Hampton Roads, neighbors often suspected that the confident, supremely fit young neighbor who mowed the lawn one day and disappeared the next for weeks at a time might be a Navy SEAL, or a member of some other elite commando team.

But few knew for certain until Saturday, when the terrible news arrived that 30 Americans — including 22 Navy SEALs — had died in Afghanistan after Taliban forces shot down their helicopter. Some were members of SEAL Team Six based here at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base.

Now members of the community are grappling with how to mourn and honor the sacrifice of those whose lives have been shielded in the strictest secrecy, and how to serve the families they left behind.

“Many times, you’re stationed somewhere where you have no family, so we become each other’s family,” said Angela Boothe, who lives across the cul de sac from the light gray house with blue shutters where Stephen Matthew Mills, 35, lived with his wife, Keri, and their toddler son, Cash. (Mills, 35, who grew up in Texas, also has two children from a previous marriage.)

Two weeks before Mills’s last deployment, Boothe, whose husband is in the Navy, said she and her 18-year-old son, Christopher, met at Mills’s garage sale. Her son told Mills of his interest in attending the U.S. Naval Academy or becoming a SEAL. Mills never let on that he was a SEAL, but he offered to help the young man prepare himself.

“He said, ‘I’ve trained with them. I know their workout,’ ” Boothe said. “They hit it off.”

On Saturday, Boothe said she returned to pay her respects to Mills’s widow. Boothe said the Millses’ house was full of food, relatives and Navy comrades who tried to keep the mood uplifting, to ride out the recurring waves of grief.

“Everyone was talking to her and reminding her of the good times she had with him. Every time she broke down, saying ‘Who’s going to take care of Cash? Who’s going to teach him to play ball?’ they’d say, ‘We will.’ ” Boothe recalled Monday, as she prepared to make a pan of lasagna for the Millses. “From what I saw, they were great people.”

A fleet of SUVs and pickups with out-of-state plates still filled the driveway, and a delivery notice from a florist hung on the door. A young man with a tribal tattoo who said he was Mills’s best friend and colleague turned away a reporter from the door.

The mood seemed especially dark in contrast to the pride and jubilation that swept over Hampton Roads a few months ago when people celebrated the Navy SEALs as hometown heroes — perhaps too publicly, some say — for killing Osama Bin Laden. Saturday’s crash, the worst single loss of American life since the conflict in Afghanistan began nearly 10 years ago, has also forced even the most gung-ho and patriotic to reassess the wisdom of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

Though the Pentagon has not yet identified the dead, some families have received notification and shared accounts of their loved ones with news media or created memorial pages on Facebook, and word spread in their home towns.

Yet, with few public ceremonies in Hampton Roads to recognize the sacrifice of the service members, the most powerful expressions of mourning in this military community have occurred quietly in some of the suburban neighborhoods where SEALS lived. Neighbors have rallied around the survivors in subtle, muted ways, following instincts that come from prior military service or life in a military family. They put out an American flag, sometimes at half staff. They mow the widow’s yard. They knock at the door with home-baked lasagna, brownies and other comfort foods. They offer to babysit the children or run errands.

Such expressions of grief, suffused with the values of stoicism and decorum, attempt to navigate an emotionally charged contradiction: Even in death, the SEALs and their families often shun the attention that many want to give them.

Neighbors often struggle to find the right balance between showing their concern and protecting their neighbors’ privacy. Even if they had not known the SEAL or the SEAL’s family for very long, or not at all, many neighbors express a patriotic duty to show their appreciation, to care for the families who have suffered.

Others say they want to bear witness to the heroics of those who died, but they are circumspect, too, reluctant to divulge the most ordinary recollection because of the SEALs’ ethos of complete secrecy. A retiree who lives next door to Mills was not sure she should talk about the time Mills pruned a crepe myrtle in her yard after he learned that neither she nor her husband could reach the top of it.

The city, whose economy thrives on the military presence, has also been discreet. Though Mayor William D. Sessoms Jr. has ordered flags flown at half staff on city buildings, there have been no makeshift memorials, no yellow ribbon campaigns or public prayer services— as the military prefers, Sessoms said.

“The low-key response is because that’s what we were asked: ‘Give us space. Give us time to mourn. We know you’re there for us,’ ” Sessoms said.

On Tuesday night, a rare public memorial took place when surfers formed a ritual circle in the sea for Kraig Vickers, one of the fallen SEALs who was a Hawaii native and loved to surf. But organizers of the paddle-out off Little Island Fishing Pier in Sandbridge also asked that there be no interviews, the Virginian-Pilot reported. Another public tribute occurred hours after the helicopter crash with a moment of silence during a Norfolk Tides minor league baseball game.

At the Vickerses’ home in a quiet suburban development, the family declined a request for an interview. Neighbors tried to comprehend the loss of a man who left behind his pregnant wife Nani and their three children.

Pat Sullivan, a retired Defense Department civilian, said he wanted to fly a flag on his house in Vickers’ honor, though he wasn’t sure if he should fly it at half staff. He also baked brownies.

His wife, Rhoni, 46, said she has already thought that she will offer Vickers’s widow the opportunity to use their time-share condo at a beach in Florida. They did not know the Vickers well or socialize, and so she felt reluctant to visit right away. She said other neighbors have cut the grass or taken the children swimming.

“They have three kids, and one on the way,” Rhoni said. “How do we, as a community, take care of that family that has sacrificed so much for us?”

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