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.