When Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms learned that a Navy SEAL unit based just outside his city had taken out Osama bin Laden, his first thought was to honor it.
The only problem, however, was he had no idea who the SEALs were, or how to find them.
But while such discretion is a prerequisite for covert operations, it raises practical hurdles for a mayor who is used to the cheering crowds that welcome home aircraft carriers to the naval base in Norfolk.
“This community is extremely proud. I’d like to come up with a way to have a city celebration of some kind. If we can,” said Sessoms (R), whose initial thought was to include the SEALs in the city’s Patriotic Festival in June. “But it’s challenging.”
Other Virginia politicians overlooked such details, satisfied with the knowledge that the men involved in bin Laden’s death had a connection to the Old Dominion state. Former Republican senator and current candidate George Allen (R) tweeted: “As Virginians were hit at the Pentagon on 9-11 & USS Cole, it is appropriate that a VA-based SEAL Team brought justice directly to #Osama.”
The Naval Special Warfare Development Group — long known as SEAL Team Six — was formed in 1980 after failed attempts to rescue U.S. hostages from Iran.
The elite counterterrorism unit deploys from a tiny military facility in Dam Neck, just outside Virginia Beach. There are six other groups within special warfare, based elsewhere, and a total of 2,300 active-duty SEAL officers.
What makes SEALs special is the grueling training they endure. About 200 candidates are in each Basic Underwater Demolition school class. By the end, about 30 to 35 men remain. Many drop out after “Hell Week,” when they must train around the clock for six straight days.
And once they become SEALs, the training never ends, former SEALs said. The men who took out bin Laden spent weeks rehearsing the raid on a replica of the compound, as well as rehearsing different potential scenarios — including taking bin Laden alive.
The relentless regimen creates an intense bond among the men that is critical to success in combat. Former SEAL commander Mark Divine said the experience is so unique that it can make it harder to relate to someone who doesn’t spend their days jumping out of planes or swimming two miles in frigid waters in total darkness. SEALs also work in small, close-knit groups, and because they can’t openly discuss much of their work, they tend to stick together even when they are off duty. Virginia Beach denizens refer to them as “team guys.”
“You don’t hardly know they are there unless they are your neighbor,” Sessoms said.
The burden their work places on families is also unique, Sessoms said. Members’ wives and children “don’t know when they are leaving and where they are when they are gone and when they are coming home. It’s all quiet and hidden.”
SEAL families have a support group, the Virginia Beach-based Navy SEAL Foundation, which has seen its donations surge since bin Laden’s death. Director of development David Guernsey said that the foundation received $6,000 in donations on Monday alone and that many online donations came with notes attached that thanked the SEALs for their service.
Discerning locals know how to spot a SEAL, especially when they venture out among channel-surfing civilians.
“You can kind of tell. They’re extremely fit. They all kind of dress in a similar way, wear the same type of sunglasses and Tevas,” Divine said. “You can start to notice these guys by the way they carry themselves.”
They are a “high testosterone group,” said Alden Mills, who was an active-duty SEAL from 1991 to 1998. The ethos is captured by slogans such as “failure is not an option” and “pain is weakness leaving the body.”
Mills summed up the reaction to bin Laden’s death among his former SEAL buddies: “Hooyah!”
“That’s SEAL speak for ‘fired up,’ ” he said.
“The next feeling as someone who used to be there was ‘Wish I could have been there, too.’ ”
Staff writer Christian Davenport contributed to this report.