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Norfolk, Virginia, approves military-themed brewery despite some community pushback

Norfolk City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to approve a Armed Forces Brewing Company’s taproom and distribution facility, near the the largest U.S. Navy base.
The planned beer hall is facing some community opposition over alleged remarks made by Robert O'Neill, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who said he shot Osama bin Laden and owns a small stake in the venture.
The exterior of the planned Armed Forces Brewing Company's taproom and distribution center in Norfolk, Va., on Dec. 7, 2023. Ben Finley / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

NORFOLK, Va. — A military-themed brewery will open in Virginia despite some community opposition over alleged racist and homophobic remarks of a former U.S. Navy SEAL who has a small ownership stake in the business.

Norfolk’s City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to approve permits for Armed Forces Brewing Company’s taproom and distribution facility, which will be just a few miles from the nation’s largest Navy base.

The City Council bucked recommendations by the city’s planning commission and a local neighborhood association to deny the permits, while many residents said the brewery would be a terrible fit. They argued its ownership doesn’t reflect the diversity of the U.S. military, veterans or this liberal-leaning city on the Chesapeake Bay.

The brewery markets itself with politically conservative ads. Its leadership said the resistance was purely over its owners’ political views or cherry picked social media posts made by minority shareholders.

CEO Alan Beal told the council that everyone is welcome at the brewery, while its focus is “making great beer and helping veterans and their family members.”

Most of Norfolk’s City Council members said the matter was simply a land-use issue and nothing more.

“These posts do not respect the LGBTQ community, women or our Norfolk values,” Councilwoman Courtney Doyle said of promotional videos and social media posts linked to the brewery or its shareholders. “But Armed Forces Brewery has a First Amendment right to free speech just as you and I do. And these posts have not crossed the line into prohibited speech.”

The pushback to the project has mostly centered on Robert J. O’Neill, an ex-SEAL who said he was the one who fatally shot Osama bin Laden during a 2011 raid. O’Neill has a 4% stake in the brewery, sits on its board and has served as its brand ambassador. He also starred in a gunshot-filled promotional video for the company.

Robert O'Neill speaks onstage during book signing and lecture at Richard Nixon Library on July 26, 2017 in Yorba Linda, California.
Robert O'Neill in 2017.Phillip Faraone / Getty Images

Brewery opponents have cited O’Neill’s August arrest in Frisco, Texas, in which police said he assaulted a hotel security officer while intoxicated and used a racial slur. O’Neill later posted on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter: “I categorically deny ever using this horrible language recently reported.”

Another concern was O’Neill’s response to news that a U.S. Navy sailor who moonlights as a drag queen was helping the military branch’s recruitment efforts. O’Neill posted on X in May: “Alright. The U.S. Navy is now using an enlisted sailor Drag Queen as a recruiter. I’m done. China is going to destroy us. YOU GOT THIS NAVY. I can’t believe I fought for this bull.”

O’Neill, who is now a public speaker and podcaster, told The Associated Press in a Facebook message on Monday: “I hope the vote goes in our favor and want to let everyone know that, if so, they are always welcome.”

O′Neill first recounted his version of the bin Laden mission in 2013 to Esquire magazine, which identified him only as “the shooter.” The Washington Post identified him by name in November 2014.

That same month, O’Neill described SEAL Team 6’s raid to the AP, although Pentagon officials did not confirm which SEAL fired the fatal shot. After helicoptering to the compound in Pakistan, O’Neill said he and other SEALs reached a third-floor bedroom where bin Laden was.

“I shot him three times in the head and I killed him,” O’Neill said.

The former SEAL said he also participated in missions that included rescuing a merchant ship captain from Somali pirates, which was depicted in the film “Captain Phillips.” O’Neill and others have been criticized for violating the SEAL code of silence.

In the face of community pushback in Norfolk, Armed Forces Brewery has toned down O’Neill’s public-facing role. But that didn’t stop some residents from bringing him up or from criticizing the brewery.

“They have demonstrated a disinterest in being good neighbors and being welcoming,” Jeff Ryder, president of Hampton Roads Pride, told the city council. “They have expressed that they want to serve some residents of the city while being openly hostile towards others.”

Kendall Almerico, an attorney for the brewery, disagreed.

“Our company is made up of 9,500 people that are white, Black, Hispanic,” Almerico said, referring to the number of shareholders. “We have gay couples, lesbian couples. We have every single — anything you can imagine — in this company. Just like the United States military does.”