SEALs Who Killed Bin Laden Remain Secret Heroes in Hometown

Bin Laden’s Killers Remain Secret Heroes
A silhouette of a Navy SEAL, part of U.S.Special Forces. Photographer: Greg Mathieson/Mai/Mai/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

As jets screamed over Naval Air Station Oceana behind his used-car lot in Virginia Beach, Richard DeBerry Jr. said he knows a member of Navy SEAL Team Six, the elite, secretive unit that killed Osama bin Laden.

That friendship still won’t get him any details of the nighttime raid on the Pakistan compound of the terrorist who eluded capture for a decade.

“We’re not even going to try to pick his brain about it -- he’s not going to say a thing,” DeBerry, 33, said in an office lined with baseball caps from Navy servicemen who bought cars. “You get drunk with them and they won’t tell you a thing about what happened on their missions. They don’t even tell their wives.”

The SEAL team emerged as local heroes, if discreet ones, in Tidewater Virginia, where a complex of military bases sprawls from the shipyards in Norfolk to the Dam Neck compound where part of the unit is based.

The SEALs trace their roots to World War II, when they surveyed beaches and cleared obstacles for Allied amphibious landings. Today, SEALs -- the name stands for Sea, Air and Land -- perform commando assaults, unconventional warfare, reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering.

Professionalism in Uniform

Such special operations forces have played a key role since the beginning of the conflict against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, when they worked with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

“You’ve got a process of evolution since Vietnam that has not only created a more professional military but a far more professional group of intelligence operatives and special forces,” said Anthony Cordesman, a national-security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The SEAL strike team flew May 1 in helicopters to bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound under the cover of darkness, and during a 40-minute raid worked its way through the structure, confronting and killing him on a top floor, according to White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and other administration, defense and intelligence officials. President Barack Obama and national security officials listened to an audio feed and heard the code words that let them know bin Laden was dead.

SEALs and Delta

In Virginia Beach, the base of bin Laden’s killers in a heavily guarded compound isn’t marked by name. Its Army counterpart is Delta Force, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The teams are part of the Joint Special Operations Command, which also oversees the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment with helicopters to get the commandos to work and the 75th Ranger Regiment with infantry shock troops to back up the commandos with more firepower.

Around Virginia Beach, a city of about 433,000 dominated by strip malls and suburban sprawl around the military bases, there were no signs of public tribute to the SEALs who killed America’s most-wanted man.

Service members were loath to discuss it. One told a reporter that the mention of a bar as a gathering spot for SEALs might get it blacklisted by the military, lest it tip off enemies wishing to retaliate.

Around the town dominated by military, their families, and businesses that cater to them, residents said in interviews that their joy at the death of bin Laden was tinged with anxiety as troops are still waging two wars launched in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Joy and Melancholy

Standing on the lawn outside her mobile home, Marilyn Hargiss, 60, recounted her mixed emotions at the news of the terrorist’s death. She said her son-in-law is overseas with the Navy, which has kept him from his three daughters and year-and-a-half-old son for more than three months.

“I’m proud of our military,” she said. “They wouldn’t let up and they kept looking until they found him.”

Diamond Desmond, 33, served eight years in the Navy -- “the best of the armed services in my opinion” -- leaving in 2007 after eight years. She said that while serving on a carrier she helped ferry troops to Iraq and saw the devastation firsthand during 18 months when she was posted to the Navy’s medical center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Desmond, while working at a lingerie store near the Oceana base, said another terrorist would likely take bin Laden’s place, and that his death provides slim solace to those who lost loved ones in war.

Continuing Fire

“I’m excited that they caught him,” she said. “There’s still going to be a long list. It’s going to be never-ending. Someone’s going to step up.”

DeBerry, the car dealer, said he has more than half a dozen relatives and friends in uniform.

“It’s an uncomfortable feeling,” he said. “What’s going to happen next?”

“We don’t feel this is the end,” he said. “Not at all, the fire’s just getting started now.”

Hargiss said her pleasure at bin Laden’s demise was tempered by the continuing struggle.

“Once the dust settles and we get past all the celebrating, they’ll start wondering, what now? What’s next?” she said. “I’d like to bring those kids home.”

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