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I grew up in a military family so we moved around a lot while my Dad was in the Air Force. While he was doing his tours in Vietnam, my Mom and I lived in Japan. It was great exposure to a totally different culture and I enjoyed the whole sense of adventure. Ultimately, my father retired from the Air Force in the Pacific Northwest. He really inspired me to pursue a career in military service and I entered the Air Force Academy right after I graduated high school, electing to serve in the Navy.

I feel privileged to work with a group of highly motivated and committed young Americans. They understand the risks and rewards of their chosen profession and serve our nation to the utmost of their ability. 

Over the last 15 years, and since 9/11, we have gained an increasing understanding of the importance of properly taking care of our prime resource and flagship weapons system – our people. Their physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing and that of their families, are critical to retaining and sustaining the hard-earned experience necessary to win. Over time, we have implemented critical initiatives to take care of our warriors. We have institutionalized resilience by routinely measuring and assessing the effectiveness of these initiatives, and share best practices across the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). The health and resilience of the force is a key priority and necessity for all USSOCOM components. Service-connected traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress (PTS), and related manifestations like suicide are a reality. The ongoing evolution of our ability to recognize and support our people with effective care both during and after service is a direct reflection of the value placed on their service. 

It is clear that Secretary Mabus cares deeply for his sailors. The policy that he and the Navy implemented is as necessary as it is progressive. In my time at Naval Special Warfare Command, the Chief of Naval Personnel and I were personally and routinely engaged on cases where sailors with verifiable service-connected challenges were at odds with certain personnel policies that did not enable us to fully address our obligations to take care of our people in a way that was needed. This new policy reflects numerous cases where we sought exceptions in order to take care of our sailors, and now allows commanders to consider and address greater dimensions of service-connected challenges. 

I have a well-developed interest in advancing the care of both active duty and veteran service members. The summit is a great opportunity to share perspectives and appreciation with all of the communities engaged in this effort.

I hope that a better understanding of the challenges and potential positive impacts of this effort are understood, and that an even greater sense of purpose and urgency is fostered from the summit.

 I think that there is definitely a greater awareness and prioritization to get to more effective treatment protocols. There are numerous initiatives and policies that speak directly to suicide prevention and support across the services and specifically within USSOCOM. However, it would probably be a stretch to attribute all suicide concerns to TBI, PTS, or purely service-connected matters.

All of my most memorable experiences center on people – working through complex problems, overcoming perceived limitations and obstacles, and demonstrating the power of the human spirit – “what the mind can conceive, the body will achieve.”

I am excited about the many possibilities to consider. I can only hope that the next three decades will be as purposeful as the last three.

More about the Cohen Veterans Care Summit

Life or Death Determined By A Few Steps

As the days advanced, I became the USSS Ground Zero supervisor and liaison. On Friday, September 14th, I was asked to brief and share with President George W. Bush what it was like to be on the street that day. Together we looked up at the smokey sky where three huge skyscrapers once stood. I told him that life and death that morning was often decided between whether one simply stepped to the right or the left.

I left Ground Zero and New York City on Dec. 7th, 2001, but not before witnessing that day a heavy construction crew pull an I-beam out of the ground that was still steaming hot on the end as they wet it down with water. I had been transferred back to Washington, DC, reassigned to take over White House complex security operations for the USSS.

Two weeks after Sept. 11th, my 14-year-old son Ryan came to me and asked me to take him down to Ground Zero. Ryan had witnessed that day unfold from a ridgeline just west of New York City on the edge of the town where we lived. When I came home on the night of 9/11, Ryan had given me a huge tear-filled bear hug. However, over the next couple of weeks he got quiet and began to withdraw.

Ryan told me that he needed to go down to the WTC complex to understand what happened. He had been there many times in the past for different memory filled events. I initially resisted, as did his mother, who promptly said “no way…bad idea”.

Something told me that he needed to do this, so I took him down to Ground Zero and dressed him up in a police jacket, hard hat and respirator to hide his identity. We had an agreement that if I detected any signs that he wasn’t handling the trip, he was out of there. Ground Zero two weeks after 9/11 was a very ugly place on many fronts as it had transitioned from a rescue to a recovery operation. I escorted Ryan for three hours around the immense debris field, explaining where buildings once stood and what had happened that day to the best of my recollection. When we finished, he had a look of determination in his eyes and said that this trip to Ground Zero helped him understand.

Six Years Later, A Son Joins The Navy SEALs

Ryan graduated from an Annapolis area high school in 2005 and began diving year-round as a salvage diver in and around the Chesapeake Bay. One day he came home and announced that he had enlisted in the Navy and then added that he had volunteered for SEAL training.

I thought my wife was going to take my head off, as she was holding me responsible for this surprise announcement. I assured her that I wasn’t prompting him but did assert that he needed to cut his own path in life, that this was his decision. I made sure that Ryan knew what he signed up for and what he was getting into, introducing him to several recent combat-hardened frogmen.

When I asked Ryan why he wanted to join up, he replied, “I am going to be part of the solution. What happened to us on 9/11 can’t ever happen to us again.”

As Ryan entered the Navy, I retired from the USSS after 22 years and soon found myself being recruited back into the Department of Defense to work on the counter-IED (improvised explosive device) threat that was taking down and maiming so many of our warriors deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The IED was the main weapons system employed by extremist terror elements looking to paralyze our freedom of movement on the battlefield and to erode national support at home through graphic visual recordings of explosive attacks on our forces.

Ironically, I started with the SEAL Teams 30 years prior, the same age as Ryan. I had come full circle to eventually support Ryan and his SEAL teammates as they confronted the IED threat and the extremist networks that they were up against. As a senior leader for DoD’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and Director of the Counter IED Operations-Intelligence Integration Center (COIC), I traveled many times into the war theaters supporting both conventional and special operations forces.

One day my wife said something that hit me dead center in my heart. She said that while I was overseas, she had dinner one night with her girlfriends who were all complaining that the school bus was never on time to pick up their kids, about their husbands coming home from work late and not being able to get the week at the beach that they wanted.  One of my wife’s girlfriends turned toward her and asked about what was going on in our home. My emergency room nurse wife replied without emotion, “Oh, we’re fine, Ryan is in Iraq and Frank is in Afghanistan.”

Ryan started Navy basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in May of 2006. The next spring, he entered Basic Underwater Demolition-SEAL (BUD/S) training in San Diego, receiving his SEAL Trident in October 2008 as part of Class #268.

Ryan had numerous combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as an 18-D special operations medic and SEAL sniper. He eventually served as the lead petty officer (LPO) for Special Operations Urban Combat (SOUC) training. SOUC was the pre-deployment training phase for SEAL platoons deploying to overseas assignments.

The training realistically mirrored the environment that the deploying platoons would encounter. As the LPO, Ryan continued to be exposed to blast overpressure and physical forces from weapons firing, use of explosives, tactical simulations and helicopter operations.

In the spring of 2015, Ryan began seeking help for severe insomnia that further evolved into increased anxiety, memory loss, headaches, loss of coordination, vision problems and other uncharacteristic conditions that were progressively eroding his physical and mental health. A year later, Ryan was honorably discharged from the Navy after being diagnosed with PTSD and related conditions.

The Terrible Tragedy Of Invisible Wounds

Ryan continued to spiral down from what he once was, a highly regarded and revered SEAL operator. He informed us that if anything ever happened to him, he wanted his brain donated for traumatic brain injury/Breacher’s Syndrome research.

Ryan died by suicide on April 23, 2017, from invisible wounds suffered in service to the Teams and this nation. At the time of his death, he was dressed in his SEAL Team-7 t-shirt, wore red-white-blue board shorts and had illuminated a shadow box beside him with all his medals, insignias and other symbolic memorabilia.

Following a postmortem examination of Ryan’s brain, we learned that he suffered from an undiagnosed severe level of microscopic brain injury uniquely related to military blast exposure. Military blast exposure that was suffered in both training for combat and combat operations. Ryan died from invisible wounds that were not invisible to him or our family, just invisible to the system and society largely blind to them.

I have stood firm that Ryan died from combat related injuries in service to this nation, he just didn’t die right away.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 attacks will be an emotional rekindling of memories for the Larkin family in many ways, as it will be for others like us who have supported their loved ones working to be part of the solution.

It is an emotional time now for all of us as we witness the rapid decline of Afghanistan, as we wonder if it (Iraq and Afghanistan) was all worth it. That debate will be front and center on the political leadership that spanned multiple administrations and congresses over the past 20 years of war and global conflict.

As for my son and his teammates, they achieved personal accomplishments and experienced high adventure that goes beyond common definition or comprehension. Unless you were there alongside them and walked in their boots, you will not understand. Not one of them would trade away being a SEAL and the honor to wear the Trident. They did the job that we asked them to do — regardless of the reason or the outcome.

Conventional and special operations warriors, men and women from all parts of our society, made up an all-volunteer force that swore an oath to protect and serve us every day. Their selfless demonstration of personal strength and resiliency needs to be a guide-on for our society as we move forward to confront other inevitable challenges and threats.

We as a nation need to have the same strength, resiliency and commitment to ensure our national security. As for these revered warriors who have served us, we need to be there for them every day.

Many of them return from their service burdened by both the visible and invisible wounds of war. A recent Brown University study reported that our nation lost 7,057 warriors post 9/11 to the Global War on Terror. As an often-neglected footnote, the same study highlighted that over 30,000 warriors and veterans were lost to GWOT-related suicide since that beautiful Tuesday morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs, healthcare workers and other public service professionals or volunteers need the same level of reverence and recognition for their service to our communities and this nation. They have been our “domestic warriors” protecting our society every day with the same selfless commitment and compassion.

We must NEVER FORGET the many sacrifices founded on love that these valiant warriors, military or civilian, made for their teammates, families and nation so that we may continue to live free, healthy and secure.

Ryan loved being a SEAL and he loved the SEAL Teams. We miss his physical presence every day. We are comforted knowing that he and his fallen teammates are still out there in a different form protecting us every day.

If you have taken steps to end your life, call 911 immediately.

Please access the services below if you are having suicide ideation:

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: (800) 656-HOPE
  • National Center for PTSD Veterans Crisis Line: (800) 273-8255
  • Women’s Veterans Call Center: 1-855-VA-Women
  • Disaster Distress Helpline (SAMHSA) – Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746
Disclaimer

Cohen Veterans Bioscience (CVB) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) public charity research organization and does not offer medical advice. CVB encourages you to seek medical advice from a physician or healthcare provider if you have questions regarding a medical condition, or to call 911 or go to the nearest hospital if you find that you or someone you are concerned about is in an emergency situation.

Sources

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/

Data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence capture many variations of similar themes. Broadly speaking, data science at CVB is a field that combines computer science, mathematics, statistics, and bioinformatics to extract knowledge from data.

At CVB we are looking to apply machine learning algorithms to what we call ‘multi-modal’ data. This means data from clinical scales, self-reports, images of the brain, genetic sequences, and even sensor data derived from wearable devices. We think a lot about what we refer to as ‘systems modeling’, which I define as an approach that aims to establish connections across different data levels to fully explain the underlying biology of disease. The hope is that these types of methods will lead to better drug targets or better ways to tailor specific therapies in an individualized manner.

Psychiatric disorders such as PTSD manifest on many levels and even within a single condition are highly heterogenous (dissimilar) at the patient level. These are typically defined by a variety of symptoms, of which there exist hundreds of thousands of potential combinations that may lead to a diagnosis. This complexity, combined with a lack of available deeply phenotyped data, leads to challenges in mapping outcomes to biology to search for better biomarkers

Since we are looking at very complex datasets measuring large numbers of features (e.g a whole genetic sequence) then we need a lot of subject-level data to achieve the power to detect any meaningful signal. Therefore, the field must come together as a community with more focused data-sharing efforts to accelerate discoveries. We have seen some success here with recent efforts involving the PGC-PTSD consortium. Additionally, we are actively developing a platform, the BRAINCommons, that enables data sharing and analytics at scale while safeguarding and protecting patient data.

We are beginning to see promising data that suggests that PTSD and TBI risk and severity may be defined biologically by using large-scale data such as DNA methylation. This type of data studies how environmental factors govern how our genes work, and we are currently investigating how these patterns relate to other data modalities such as sleep, inflammatory markers, brain imaging, and genetics. Watch this space!

We are beginning to see promising data that suggests that PTSD and TBI risk and severity may be defined biologically by using large-scale data… This type of data studies how environmental factors govern how our genes work, and we are currently investigating how these patterns relate to other data modalities such as sleep, inflammatory markers, brain imaging, and genetics.

– Lee Lancashire, PhD
Chief Information Officer, CVB

5 Ways You Can Make a Difference Today

Support Veterans Taking Action to Advance Suicide Prevention

Tragically up to 22 American Veterans and service members die by suicide daily.

In an effort to bring hope and awareness to this crisis, Marine Veteran Infantryman, Scout Sniper and survivor of a family suicide Tristan Wimmer developed 22 Jumps, a fundraising campaign to support the research of Cohen Veterans Bioscience. This initiative centers on BASE jumping 22 times in honor of individuals who took their own lives too early, and to advocate for effective solutions through research.

Watch Tristan discuss this effort with Frank Larkin, Navy SEAL (ret.), 40th Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. Senate, Suicide Survivor and Chair of our Veterans Advisory Council.

Please join Tristan in his efforts to raise $22,000 to advance Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) research, a major risk factor for suicide.

Help Fast-Track Targeted Treatments for People Suffering from the Life-Changing Effects of PTSD

The mental health effects of the coronavirus may take as significant a toll on our society as the physical effects. There is a pressing need for more effective solutions and more research. There have been no new FDA-approved therapeutics for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 18 years.

We’re working to solve this problem through robust and rigorous research that will help us better understand the biological underpinnings of PTSD and discover more effective solutions for the condition. You can also donate while you shop with AmazonSmile.

Make a Difference That is Meaningful to You: Host a Facebook Fundraiser

At least 1 in 5 people will be affected by brain disease or brain injury in their lifetime. Brain disease is personal, and it affects all of us. 

How to host a Facebook Fundraiser for Cohen Veterans Bioscience:

  1. Login to your Facebook account
  2. Visit our Facebook Fund page
  3. Set a financial goal and a time frame
  4. Share your reason for supporting CVB and brain health research
  5. Publish your fundraiser, then share it with your friends and family

Make Time for Mental Health this Holiday Season

The holiday season is a stressful time of year for many people, especially those suffering from brain diseases including mental health conditions. It’s important to recognize that the holidays can heighten stress and anxiety and to work towards taking care of your mental health. Here are different ways to cope with stress and manage your mental health.

Help Combat Stigma by Raising Awareness

The holiday season is a stressful time of year for many people, especially those suffering from brain diseases including mental health conditions. It’s important to recognize that the holidays can heighten stress and anxiety and to work towards taking care of your mental health. Here are different ways to cope with stress and manage your mental health.