An SOFX Special Presentation: A Viewpoint on Traumatic Brain Injuries within Special Operations

An SOFX Special Presentation: 

Blast, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and Suicide within Special Operations


On Wednesday, Sept 20th, 2017, Mr. Frank Larkin, a former Navy SEAL and the current Sergeant-at-Arms of the United States Senate distributed an invitation within private community channels to the Inurnment of his Son, Ryan F. Larkin.  Ryan was also a Navy SEAL, recently separated, who experienced tremendous suffering before and after separation attempting to deal with injuries sustained in both combat and training.  Ryan took his own life on Sunday, April 23th, 2017.  

Prior to his death, Ryan had expressed his wish for his body to be used for TBI-Breacher’s Syndrome research in the event anything happened to him.  Shortly after his death, community members reached out to Frank and guided him to a brain trauma research effort, where Ryan’s brain tissue was donated for analysis.

The results of that study were startling and provide an important waypoint for us to consider both the way we treat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder associated with TBI along with what we think we know about the nature of veteran suicides.  

There is recent and gathering awareness and body of evidence within both the military and the professional sports industry of the effect of concussion leading to permanent and lasting damage to both the physical and emotional wellbeing of people for which conventional treatment options are actually contra-indicated.   The content below represents Mr. Frank Larkin’s point of view.  SOFX stands ready to support the distribution of additional content that will further our collective understanding of these issues in the execution of our avert suffering mission.  

– Sam Havelock, CEO, SOFX, Inc.



Traumatic Brain Injuries are a Physical Problem, Not an Emotional One

By Frank J. Larkin, (Former SEAL) Father of Ryan F. Larkin (Former SEAL)

Dear Teammates,

My son, SO1 Ryan F. Larkin (Class-268), will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday, October 13th at 0900 hours in the Columbarium.  I have attached a flyer for those teammates and friends interested in attending.  On Ryan’s behalf, Jill and I want to take this opportunity to thank all our Naval Special Warfare (NSW) teammates and friends, past and present, for their heartfelt condolences, prayers and support during a very difficult time.  Ryan is deeply missed in so many ways.

This letter is to raise awareness of a newly discovered pattern of brain injury related to the concussive effects of explosive blast.  We have all been tracking the latest news broadcasts about the NFL CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) concerns highlighting cumulative brain damage from repeated concussive hits to the brain. 

This new injury pattern of concern for NSW and our larger special operations community is different, in that the blast wave from an explosive detonation travels through all the brain tissue at high speed, causing micro-tears, scarring and a unique pattern of injury very different from CTE. Even though we have been effectively blowing ourselves up since World War I, this is the first time this level of brain injury related to military blast exposure has been revealed through microscopic examination.

A number of months prior to Ryan’s death, he expressed a wish that his body be used for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) research should anything ever happen to him.  Ryan had been battling with PTS and TBI for almost two years following two combat tours to Iraq and two to Afghanistan as a corpsman and sniper with Team 7.  He finished his NSW enlistment as the Leading Petty Officer for NSW Group 1, TRADET SOUC, teaching breaching and assault tactics.  He honorably discharged in March 2016.   He was a very changed man from the son we witnessed entering the Navy and the Teams.

Like many special operators suffering from PTS and TBI, it was a struggle for Ryan to move through daily tasks; sleep was elusive and nightmares were abundant.  He was always on guard for something to happen, often dealing with unannounced attacks of anxiety and depression.  Ryan often expressed he was haunted by things he experienced in combat; where at times he questioned his own survival.  He sought help while in the Navy and upon discharge with the VA.  The help more often involved being prescribed a new psychotropic drug that only made him feel worse not better.  Focus was on treating and suppressing symptoms, not identifying the root causes of his issues.

One Sunday morning this past April, Ryan ended his pain, but ours only continued.

I received two phone calls within hours of Ryan’s passing.  The first came from SOCS (Ret.) Dave Hall and the second from Jennifer Collins, wife of SOC (Ret) Dave Collins, who passed away in 2014. They informed me about a research study underway at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center examining brain injury related to blast exposure. Jen recounted the very similar experiences she had with her husband Dave as he struggled with PTS and TBI.  She explained her decision to donate his brain to further the TBI research effort, sensing that there was something more to his abrupt decline and abnormal behavior. Jen pointed me to a recent article in the Lancet magazine (attached), a highly regarded medical journal that had just published an article profiling post mortem brain examinations following blast exposure.  Jen related that a few months had gone by before she received the findings of Dave’s examination.  According to the Center for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine (CNRM), Dave showed signs of severe astroglial scarring throughout his brain from military blast exposure.  Dave’s findings were being incorporated in the Lancet article that was announcing this newly discovered injury pattern to the worldwide medical research community.

It was almost two months to the day following Ryan’s death, when we received a call from CNRM requesting that we meet with representatives from the Department of Pathology at Walter Reed NMMC.  The lead CNRM researcher, Dr. Daniel Perl MD, a world recognized neuropathologist, reported that Ryan showed significant evidence of interface astroglial scarring throughout his brain from military blast exposure.  Additionally, Dr. Perl noted that Ryan also presented with an advanced level of cerebral arterial sclerosis, not a normal finding for a healthy 30-year-old male with no associated risk factors related to high blood pressure, smoking or family history.

My motivation for sharing this information is to bring critical and urgent attention to our special operations community about this newly discovered pattern of injury from concussive blast exposure.  Ryan’s brain damage was never picked up on X-ray, MRI, CAT or PET scans, let alone blood markers.  However, he did show cognitive impairment and disability when assessed at both the Walter Reed NMMC National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) and at the Cerebrum Health Center in Dallas, TX.  Ryan also demonstrated abnormal brain EEG findings while being treated at the Brain Treatment Center in Newport Beach, CA.  Unfortunately, this unique brain injury pattern is currently only qualified through post-mortem microscopic examination.  This is not unlike the NFL Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is also predominantly qualified after death.  Again, CTE is a very different pattern of injury than the astroglial scarring from explosive blasts.

Throughout Ryan’s painful journey, the “system” defaulted toward treating him as a behavioral problem or a mental health patient. The “system” hung all types of labels on him to justify their assessments and actions.  At the end of Ryan’s remarkable life, we finally learned the truth about what was challenging his daily survival…he had a combat related injury to his brain…structural damage.  The multiple neurologists we consulted reported that the use of psychotropic drugs for this type of brain injury further impaired Ryan’s condition and harmed his opportunity for recovery.  Unfortunately, the medical system “didn’t know what it didn’t know” and vectored toward psychiatric treatment and drug focused therapy. From the beginning, Ryan said that something was wrong with his head.  All he wanted was to have a good night’s sleep, stop the nightmares and feel normal again.  He said that no one was listening.  I, as his father, carry a burden of that guilt for not listening enough and not understanding his level of physical and emotional pain.

A number of us old frogs (SEALs) have been working closely with RADM Tim Szymanski to address the health of the current and future force.  The immediate imperative, based on these new findings, is to create diagnostic capabilities to identify this injury pattern in a living operator early in the evolution of cumulative blast exposure.  This will involve employment of new or re-configured diagnostic technology to detect this level of brain injury.  Each operator will need to be physically, medically and psychologically base lined, in order to facilitate comparative assessments following combat deployments and or exposure to critical incidents.  Further research into blast related brain injury MUST continue.  It will require developing a new voluntary brain donation program within SOCOM.  Brain donations will be needed from all sources, those with a history of concussive blast exposure and those who do not have a history of exposure.  High-risk groups need to be identified for more intensive health surveillance, such as breachers, rocketeers, snipers and those exposed to IEDs and indirect enemy fire. For my fellow law enforcement professionals, this threat definitely has nexus for our tactical units that employ snipers and explosive breachers.

I list the following articles that offer greater context for this discussion.  Ryan was loyally committed to the health and welfare of his “boys” right up to the end.  He loved being a SEAL and being part of the NSW community.  His contribution to this brain research effort will continue for many years, as will the contribution of Dave Collins and others who have sacrificed for this nation.  It has provided Jill and I with a level of explanation and lifted some of our heartache.  On Ryan’s behalf, I will leverage my position in the US Senate to illuminate this issue and fight for the health of our special operators.

Sources And Relevant Articles For Consideration:

Lancet Neurology Study

Viewing the Invisible Wound

NY Times – What If PTSD Is More Physical Than Psychological

SO1 Ryan F Larkin Arlington Inurnment


Failure is not an option…we can’t leave any more of our own behind.   

V/R Frank J. Larkin

Sergeant at Arms, United States Senate

BUDs Class-84, SEAL TEAM-2



Frank J. Larkin is the 40th United States Senate Sergeant at Arms.  After his extensive career in naval special warfare operation, law enforcement, national security, intelligence, cyber and physical security, he continues his career as the chief law enforcement and executive officer of the Senate, the Sergeant at Arms.

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Larkin served as a special warfare operator in the Navy SEALs.  His extensive career includes stents as a Navy SEAL, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and the United States Secret Service.  He also holds a BA degree in Criminal Justice and a Master of Public Administration degree from Villanova University.


Ryan F. Larkin, US Navy SEAL, passed away on Sunday, April 23rd 2017.  He graduated BUDS Class 268 and received his Trident and Navy Parachute Wings in October 2008.  After training as a Special Operations Combat Medic and a Naval Special Warfare Sniper, Ryan had two combat deployments to Iraq and two deployments to Afghanistan, along with missions to Lebanon and Honduras.

He was awarded the Bronze Star, Army Commendation and Navy-Marine Corp Achievement medals with valor, as well as numerous other awards.  Ryan continued his service as Lead Petty Officer and senior instructor for the Special Operations Urban Combat Course of instruction for deploying SEAL teams.  He received an Honorable Discharge in March 2016 and was pursuing a degree in Mathematics.