Virginia Beach: Heartbreak in home port for SEALs

Those who call Virginia Beach home went to work Monday with hearts heavy, feeling the firsthand pain of loss in Afghanistan of 22 members of SEAL Team Six, the elite special forces unit based in the seaside vacation venue.

In contrast, some vacationers who came for the touristy high-rise beachfront hotels, amusement parks, bikini and swimwear shops, saloons and restaurants hadn't heard of Friday's helicopter crash that killed 30 U.S. troops.

In death as in everyday duty, the SEALs and their families are insular, with their own intimate support system that few outsiders can grasp, residents with close ties to the unit said.

"They're family. Any one of them would give their life for any other one of them at any given time. It's a close-knit family," said Sam Midgett, 56, a boat repairman and lifelong Virginia Beach resident who has counted many Navy SEALs as close friends.

"People here are very torn up about this," Midgett said as he tested a repaired small craft at a boat launch on Rudee Inlet, where SEAL Team members often launch watercraft for training. "I know if I could, I'd trade places with them."

Paula Phillips of Adamstown, Md., hadn't heard of the deaths Monday, even though she works for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which works closely with all branches of the military. Her last day before her vacation was Thursday, and she and her family had focused on family time and fun, not news.

"Oh no," she gasped when told of Friday's deaths. "This is going to be very, very hard for us."

The U.S. military released new details Monday about the helicopter crash in the Tangi Valley, a dangerous area of Wardak province on the doorstep of the Afghan capital. The 30 U.S. troops, seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter who died were taking part in one of thousands of nighttime operations being conducted annually across the nation. A Taliban-rocketed grenade took down the helicopter.

Heather Purcell, who works for a restaurant along the Boardwalk, says vacationers are generally in their own little shell. They don't come to the beach to lament the world's woes. And the homegrown businesses that thrive on tourist seasons don't want to thrust Virginia Beach's hometown sorrows upon a family's summer respite.

"They take a step away from reality when they're here," said Purcell, 28, who felt Friday's deaths keenly because her boyfriend is a U.S. Marine stationed in the area. "It is like an imaginary line in the sand between the people on this side of the Boardwalk and the people out there under their umbrellas and on their beach towels."

It really couldn't be any other way, said the Rev. Ira Towns, 45, the executive pastor of Atlantic Shores Baptist Church where two of the slain SEALs — Kevin Houston and Lou Langlais — worshipped. He won't discuss SEALs in his congregation in detail, he said, and neither will others.

"Here, you have a connection with Navy SEALs and you want to protect them and protect their families and people don't disclose information about them," Towns said. "This city's not like that. People aren't going to start putting piles of flowers in front of their houses like memorials."

They draw their comfort from within the extended SEAL family, he said. They live together, they sweat out deployments together, they celebrate victories and homecomings together and they grieve together, Towns said. And distance is not a factor.

In March 2010, SEAL Team member Adam Brown, a member of Atlantic Shores Baptist, died. After word of Friday's deaths broke, Brown's widow swiftly boarded a flight from Little Rock, Ark., and returned to Virginia Beach to comfort friends suffering a sorrow she has already endured.

Retired SEAL Don Shipley said many SEALs live ordinary lives in the Hampton Roads area, rarely revealing their specialized military training. The fawning and the awe-based Hollywood's almost superhero characterizations of SEALs put them ill at ease, he said.

"We just don't like the reaction we get from the average person," Shipley said. "They want to buy you a beer, they want to pat you on the back."


Associated Press writer Steve Szkotak contributed to this report from Richmond.