Virginia Beach wants to be known for its military installations, boardwalk and strawberries — not its tragedy
By LAURA VOZZELLA, PATRICIA SULLIVAN, JULIE ZAUZME | The Washington Post | Published: June 3, 2019
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Columbine, Newtown, Parkland and now Virginia Beach. They are reduced in the nation's imagination to their most wrenching day.
Virginia Beach always has been a sandy sliver of itself in the minds of most Americans, even most Virginians'. But there's a whole city — the state's largest — beyond the ocean waves, boardwalk and hotel towers. It's the place where Navy SEALs train, in a region with 75 military installations and more active-duty U.S. personnel than any place outside of the Pentagon. It's the spot where televangelist Pat Robertson built an 11,000-student university. It's the place where most of the state's strawberries grow.
Friday's mass shooting threatens to shove that reality aside. For now at least, across the country, Virginia Beach is where a city engineer took the second Friday afternoon of summer and turned it into a massacre, leaving 12 dead and four seriously injured at the municipal complex. The place is trending on Twitter, but with a hashtag nobody wants: #VBStrong.
As residents grieved on Sunday, they also took the first steps toward reclaiming the city's identity. They did so intentionally and visibly in some cases, with prayers and vigils. And they resorted to habit in others: The roads were jammed, the aquarium mobbed, the minigolf courses and bike rental shops bustled.
As they did, they asked one another how a city moves on from something like this.
Several hundred people hugged one another and set up their beach chairs as they gathered for a Sunday morning service organized by Trinity Church, an evangelical congregation. The service took place outdoors by the iconic Neptune sculpture on the resort strip at the beach that often represents the city.
"You look at a day like today — how beautiful the ocean is, how good God is," said Jackie Wisman, a church member. "That's what you want Virginia Beach to be known for."
He was thinking of the police cars he saw rushing toward the municipal complex two days earlier, more sirens than he's ever heard at once in his life. He was thinking of the calls for gun control, which he opposes. He was thinking of his home city, to which he moved three years ago to be close to his wife's family. Now he was watching its residents gather for vigils and posting "VB Strong" messages along the highways.
"It's just horrible," he said. "You don't want people to think about Virginia Beach and think about a shooting, just like Columbine."
At the Courthouse Community United Methodist Church, less than a mile from the local government complex where the dozen were killed, Sunday was a time to try to heal.
"We will not be defined by this violence," the Rev. Beth Anderson told her 150 congregants, who, just a day earlier, were making lunch for FBI agents and technicians.
Politicians spoke of resilience and healing.
"I think the community is absolutely pulling together," said Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, who attended a vigil Saturday and a church service Sunday with his wife, Cerina Fairfax.
"The message that the pastor at Bridge Church gave us yesterday was, 'We will rise,' " the lieutenant governor said. "And I think you already see this community rising, not only to deal with the loss that we've experienced but rising to the challenge of our time, which is preventing these kinds of mass shootings, mass tragedies."
Even as Virginia Beach vowed to persevere, some residents said it was too soon to talk of moving on.
"You have to have an opportunity to grieve and to mourn," said Jeff McWaters, a businessman and former Republican state senator from the city. "There has to be a time for people to come together and collectively mourn what's lost and help the families. . . . Just like 9/11, we don't want to forget."
McWaters banks on the city's resolve, something that tourists might miss but that he sees every time a C-17 roars over his backyard. He knows the planes are full of Navy SEALs bound for one of the world's hot spots, and he says a little prayer when they pass overhead.
"It's a community of people who are resilient," he said. "We live through burying Navy SEALs. And we live through burying other military fatalities. It's a group of people who want the world to be better, and it happens to be embedded in a beautiful part of the world, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. And we have millions of visitors . . . and they don't see that behind the scenes."
The tragedy did not keep shoppers away from Lynnhaven Mall, a center frequented by so many military personnel that almost every store advertises service-member discounts.
"Obviously in the short term there will be an association," said veteran Phillip Newallo, 41, as he strolled toward Dick's Sporting Goods. That's "because Virginia Beach didn't have a national reputation before. But it's a sad state of affairs."
Nicole and Justin Cassimore, parents of a boy and a girl they were pushing in a stroller into the mall, said people will always want to go to the beach, or shop at the region's numerous malls or join the military. Those activities should support the city's reputation after the news of the most recent mass slaying dies down.
"Until the next one," Newallo said ruefully.
The shooting will cause people to draw closer, emphasizing those local ties, predicted Susan Beni, sitting at Silver Stream, the jewelry store her husband owns on the boardwalk.
She saw that kind of closeness on a happy occasion a month ago, when Virginia Beach hosted the three-day Something in the Water music festival.
"That was Virginia Beach positive. Everyone was on the same page. Now we have tragedy," Beni said. "Hey, we're still Virginia Beach. We've got good people. . . . It won't deter anyone from coming here. This could happen in anyone's backyard."
Rather than scare tourists away, the tragedy actually inspired some out-of-staters to head to the city for the weekend.
Greg Zanis of Aurora, Illinois, made 12 white crosses, each marked with a victim's name. He drove to deliver them to the sidewalk memorial in front of the municipal complex on Sunday.
He's made them for others — for people who died in mass shootings, fires in California and a tornado in Alabama. He said he has made 26,636 so far. People are encouraged to write messages on them. After 40 days, the crosses are given to family members.
Peggi Breuninger drove five hours from New Jersey with her Great Dane, Alma. She'd attended church services Friday night and a breakfast for first responders Sunday.
She'd trekked to Pittsburgh, Parkland, Orlando and other sites of mass shootings.
"In Pittsburgh, it brought the community together really quickly," she said. "And Parkland the exact same thing. The community spirit there was just off the boards. And we are feeling the same way here."
After Trinity Church's service on the beach, pastors baptized some of the flock in the ocean. The church does ocean baptisms twice a summer and considered calling Sunday's off because of the shootings. After some debate, the church decided to go ahead with the plan.
More than 30 people — mostly children and several adults — got dunked in the waves. Every time they emerged, blinking away cold saltwater, a crowd on the beach cheered.
Stretching out endlessly on either side of them were umbrellas and beach chairs, as families shouted and frolicked like any other day at the beach.
"That's the thing with life," said Art Childs, one of the pastors standing on the shore. "Life has to continue on."
People take part in an outdoor church service organized by Trinity Church at Neptune's Park in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on Sunday, June 2, 2019.
MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST