VIRGINIA BEACH — Finding a Navy SEAL in this city should be easy. This is where hundreds of America’s most elite warriors are based. This is where their heroic exploits are celebrated and retold, especially since a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a bold raid on the al-Qaeda mastermind’s Pakistani hideout.
But finding a real, active-duty SEAL in this beach resort — not to mention one of the 20 or so members of SEAL Team 6 who swept into bin Laden’s compound early this month — is like chasing echoes in a fun house.
Almost everyone has a military pedigree in this Navy town, so almost everyone claims to know a SEAL, a former SEAL or somebody else who does. After a while, you start thinking you see them everywhere, until you realize that even here, in the heart of SEAL country, all those years of speculation about bin Laden’s whereabouts have been replaced by a new post-Sept. 11 mystery: Where is the SEAL, or SEALs, who put the bullets in bin Laden? Someone has to know around here.
“They say they know who did it or they know someone who knows someone who did it,” said Carlie Kinzey, 18, a server at the Raven restaurant, which was a popular hangout for SEALs years ago when SEAL commando-turned-novelist Dick Marcinko’s daughter waited tables there.
Without fanfare, SEAL Team 6, as it’s popularly known, returned to its base outside this city last weekend after a congratulatory visit with President Obama. The Navy Times, citing unnamed sources, said the elite commandos — who actually go by the official name of Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DevGru — are divided into four color-coded squadrons based at Dam Neck, Va. Of those, Red Squadron got the call because its 50 or so members, about half of whom were chosen for the raid, were on alert.
Since then, SEALs have become the object of almost feverish attention here, with many people feeling proud of their warriors’ heroics, protective of their identities and a little paranoid about the possibility of some al-Qaeda payback.
Even apparently well-grounded adults talk about the SEALs as the closest thing we know to comic book characters: They have superhuman powers to withstand cold, heights and fear! They have secret identities! They dive into the sea from submarines and leap from airplanes at 30,000 feet! They have cool zoomorphic job titles, like Spider-Man or Batman! They roll with the best high-tech gizmos and deadly toys! Even their trident insignia is snazzy! And such good manners!
“They could kill you with a straw 13 different ways, but they’re really nice,” said Allen Norfolk, 52, the manager of Chicks, a rumored SEAL hangout off Shore Drive.
Other supposed SEAL habitats include the Ready Room, Hot Tuna, C.P. Shuckers, Waterman’s Surfside Grill and, not so long ago, Guadalajara Mexican Bar on Shore Drive. Several seem no different than any seaside joint whose decor is a mix of contemporary American frat house and pirate ship: beer, monster-size burgers, NASCAR or ESPN on giant-screen TVs, fruity-slushy cocktails and some big, dead fish on the walls.
At one time the SEALs’ favored haunt was the Raven restaurant, which Hollywood commandeered for some scenes in the 1990 movie “Navy SEALs” with Charlie Sheen. On the walls are Vietnam paraphernalia and some framed pictures of ponytailed Marcinko and his “Rogue Warrior” series of books.
“We’re the original SEAL team hangout — I don’t know why,” said Bobby Dunnington, 64, who bought the Raven with his twin brother, Ricky, after a stint in Vietnam with the Seabees a few years after President Kennedy created the SEALs. Having seen a few, the Dunningtons say it’s possible to make a probable visual identification of a SEAL in public but trickier to get confirmation.
“They do not talk about business,” Bobby Dunnington said. “All they want to do is pick up babes.”
“You need to talk to their girlfriends,” Ricky Dunnington added.
Still, the Dunningtons and many other seasoned SEAL spotters say they can pick one out in a crowd by certain telltale signs. Chief among them is a buff, zero-percent-body-fat, V-shaped physique coated with tattoos, perhaps sprouting a beard or other facial hair to avoid attracting notice in Middle East war zones. But above all, SEAL watchers say America’s premier commandos give off an aura, a hint of swagger, as if the excess of self-confidence emanates from their bodies.
“You can notice the way they hold themselves — maybe a little cocky,” said Jennifer Bell, 31, a Navy corpsman from Stockbridge, Mich., on the USS Cole, one of the ships struck by terrorists several years ago. Scanning the bar at C.P. Shuckers on Saturday, Bell, who has been part of medical crews that treated SEALs, finds zero candidates.