After giving over 21 years of his life to this nation, Navy SEAL Senior Chief Chad Wilkinson died by suicide on October 29, 2018. His wife Sara and GORUCK are on a mission to stop other veterans from doing the same.
In 2008, GORUCK was founded by veteran Green Beret Jason McCarthy and his wife, Emily. The two founded the company together out of her house in West Africa, where she was stationed as a CIA agent. Their company motto highlights service being a way of life: Building Better Americans, stronger communities, empowered people.
“I joined after 9/11 because of 9/11, (Jason) McCarthy explained. “I felt I needed to serve something bigger than myself and also wanted revenge, quite frankly. I was in Special Forces from 2003 until 2008 and got out to start GORUCK which is patterned after the Special Forces. Since the beginning it’s always been important to us to give back. Veteran suicide has been an enormous challenge in our community and our country.”
Although the CDC lists warning signs and concerning behaviors to look for in someone who may be suicidal, Sara Wilkinson said none of the typical red flags were present in Chad — he had never talked about struggling with anything. But she also admitted spouses tend to chalk things up to “that’s just how they are” due to the nature of their job. For Chad, it was more than a job.
Being a SEAL was the dream he told her about when she was just 13 years old. “We were military kids who met on base at a DoD high school. He always wanted to be a SEAL and that’s where the path took us,” Sara explained.
Chad even left college early to enlist in the Navy, following in the footsteps of an uncle and his own father who’d both been SEALs. “It was always in his heart to serve this country. Chad graduated from BUD/s Class 204 in 1996 and went to SEAL Team 8 after completing his medic training at Fort Bragg,” she said.
After 10 years with the team, Chad got out. “We absolutely hated it,” Sara laughed. In less than three years, Chad was back in. This time, he was initially sent to the west coast but was fast-tracked to SEAL Team 6. Also known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, widely known to be comprised of the most elite special operators in the world.
“There were multiple deployments — way too many,” Sara said. “As time went on they all changed. I am probably one of the few spouses who will say it outloud. They are just made to be larger than life humans. That affects them too.”
Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI, is a very real diagnosis making the rounds for veterans. But there are some brain traumas within the scope of TBI being missed in scans. After Chad’s death, Sara donated his brain for medical research. The results showed significant “interface astragal scarring” — caused by blast waves.
In 2016, a study of eight brains of veterans who’d died by suicide or drug overdose revealed the same damage undetected by typical scans.
“When you’re talking about people who’ve done multiple deployments, shooting RPGs — I mean they are blasting doors constantly not just overseas but in training,” Sara explained. “Basically, it not only deteriorates your brain but affects your entire body at the physiological level. It’s really hard when you’ve loved someone your whole life to think like, ‘That broke him?’ He was unbreakable.”
Though McCarthy personally didn’t know Chad, he said his story resonated deeply with him. The GORUCK Team wanted to do something to honor him and bring awareness to the issue. It was here the idea for the Veterans Day Chad 1000X Workout was born. In 2020, the initiative raised over $100,000 for the Navy Seal Foundation and other veteran mental health programs.
“It was incredibly humbling how many people took to the workout and how widespread it got in such a short amount of time. When you lose someone who is so close to you, all you want is for someone to know the person you loved,” Sara said through tears.
Though the often quoted 22-a-day statistic may fluctuate, the number is an alarming trend which no amount of funding seems to be able to adequately address. “We are looking for things to blame and I believe the solution is far more foundational. The solution is bringing people together and not letting people isolate to the point of loneliness, depression or anxiety,” McCarthy explained.
For both Sara and McCarthy, they see the way the symptoms are hidden due to fear or shame. “My hope for this would be to normalize it because it doesn’t discriminate across the board. We’re about to reach a point where when someone retires at 20 years, they’ve spent their entire career at war,” Sara said. “I do think there should be a conversation about being okay that it will affect you and it doesn’t make you less.”
McCarthy echoed the sentiment. “Someone like Chad who everyone thought was unbreakable, broke. It’s not because he was born to break, either. It’s a cautionary tale to everyone out there. He hid this really well,” McCarthy said. “There is no easy button or easy fix. We want to raise awareness and funding and stress the idea of people coming together.”
Though Sara is grateful his memory will live on with the Chad 1000X through GORUCK, the workout is about the current veterans and their spouses, she said. “They are hurting, very badly. For me, that is where my heart is. I would do just about anything for this to not happen to someone else.”
To register for the GORUCK Veterans Day CHAD 1000x Workout, click here.
The British evacuation at Dunkirk during WWII was a turning point for the island nation. Unable to go on the offensive against the Germans with their conventional Army, the British turned to more unconventional methods. “Enterprises must be prepared, with specially-trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts [of occupied Europe],” stated Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a minute to General Ismay, “first of all on the butcher and bolt policy…leaving a trail of German corpses behind them.” This butcher and bolt policy was carried out by British Commandos, forerunners of the modern Royal Marine Commandos, Special Boat Service and Special Air Service.
The elite soldiers of the SAS are well-known in popular culture thanks to their daring exploits and their depiction in media. SAS soldiers famously ended the Iranian Embassy Siege in London in 1980 and have operated in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries during the War on Terror. They have been depicted in video games like Call of Duty and movies like 6 Days. Even the rom-com Love Actually referred to the SAS as, “ruthless, trained kilers,” and so they are.
More so than regular Army units, the SAS is expected to kill, and kill well. Embracing this mission, members of the SAS have taken to donning a Punisher skull badge after their first kill in combat. This affinity for the Punisher skull was allegedly adopted from the U.S. Navy SEALs who wore the symbol extensively whilst operating alongside the SAS in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though the practice is not dissimilar from fighter pilots painting the flag of the enemy on their aircraft after making an air-to-air kill, it came under scrutiny from Army officials.
In 2019, it was revealed that Army officials banned the wearing of the Punisher skull. The move was driven by the claim that the symbol was too similar to the Death’s Head symbol worn by Nazi SS soldiers. This order was reportedly issued after a visit to the SAS Regiment’s Herefordshire base by Army chiefs. Unsurprisingly, the change was not received well by the SAS. One source within the regiment noted that the “order to remove it has gone down really badly.” They elaborated on what the symbol means to a soldier when he earns it. “It’s in recognition for the work he has done – it’s not a celebration of taking a life but more to do with putting himself in a position where his own life has been put at risk.”
The order received plenty of backlash since its issuance. Former Sergeant and Military Cross (the third-highest British Military Award) recipient Trevor Coult called the move, “politically correct nonsense and ludicrous.” Enough dissension was raised that the Army reversed the decision in May 2021. The reversal also comes with a new Director Special Forces who said that he has no problem with troops wearing the badge. He reportedly wore the Punisher skull himself while operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The MoD did not comment on the reversal.
The return of the Punisher skull was welcomed by the SAS. “When the badge was initially banned, there were many in the regiment who thought that the unit was going to fall victim to political correctness. But fortunately, someone has seen sense,” a source said. “The special forces are often sent on very dangerous missions which often involve killing people – that is a fact of life.” The SAS continues to undertake highly classified and extremely dangerous operations around the world.
Combat veteran and Navy SEAL Kaj Larsen was born to be in the ocean, but these days he doesn’t blow things up underwater anymore. He’s saving it all instead.
Larsen grew up in Santa Cruz, California, where his mother taught at the university. Surrounded by “watermen,” the ocean was always home, he said. In 1995, he brought his aquatic abilities to the water polo team at the Naval Academy, committed to following a long, family tradition of military service.
“My grandfather served in the Navy during World War II and my father was a Marine during Vietnam so I thought it was important that I serve too. Because I came from this really aquatic background, the SEAL Team was a natural fit for me,” he explained.
Larsen transferred to the University of California in 1997 and then commissioned through Officer Candidate School (first in his class) in April of 2001. Not long after, our nation was at war. He was in the first phase of BUD/S class when America was attacked on 9/11. After graduation, he led teams into covert combat operations in the War on Terror for multiple deployments. In 2007, he transitioned from active duty after five years into the reserves.
Larsen left the Navy reserves in 2018 as a Lieutenant Commander.
After his active-duty military service, Larsen attended graduate school at Harvard for public policy and counter-terrorism studies. He very quickly became a familiar face on CNN, ABC or MSNBC where he reported from war zones across the world.
And, he volunteered to be water-boarded on live television.
You could also find him hosting VICE on HBO, where he produced documentaries on conflict and national security. Larsen was the only embedded journalist during the Nigerian fight against Boko Haram. The SEAL became an award-winning documentarian, journalist and producer.
His passion for national security and the military community merged his love of the ocean when he joined Force Blue Team as a veteran ambassador.
“Force Blue takes former special operations veterans and repurposes those underwater military skills for ocean conservation,” Larsen shared. “We have this dual mission of both healing the ocean and in doing so we can help heal veterans from our time in service. I really believe in the therapeutic and healing power of the ocean.”
You’ll find combat veterans just like him on the ocean floor planting coral, rescuing turtles, completing vital fish counts and conducting oceanic surveys. “It’s like my life has come full circle. Underwater demolition used to be my job and now I’m replanting coral reefs and watching them come back to life,” Larsen said.
In 2021, Larsen teamed up with veteran Marine Raider Don Tran for what was supposed to be a one-mile underwater ruck run when Ten Thousand challenged them to a feat of strength. The challenge was definitely accepted.
“We started training in the pool where it was definitely tough and challenging. But we accomplished it and like any two spec ops guys standing next to each other, we decided to ratchet up the intensity a little,” Larsen said with a laugh.
That “just a little” turned into a never-been-done-before five-mile underwater ruck. Using the freediving buddy system of one up and one down, the former special warfare operatives leapfrogged across the living ocean floor for five miles, all while carrying a 45-pound rock.
“The first 250 yards was brutal. It was not like the training in the pool. Here we had the ocean and current pushing us around. But like any marathon or mission we put one foot in front of the other and just grinded it out,” Larsen said.
Grind it out they did. It took them six hours and 28 minutes. The entire extraordinary event will be shown to the world in a documentary coming soon.
For this veteran Navy SEAL who relied on the ocean for so much, taking care of it is a mission he’s happy to accept. “I know the beauty and wonder of the sea. I also see with my own eyes the terrible impact happening to our ocean,” Larsen said. “I am dedicated, along with my brothers from Force Blue, to helping heal that thing which has done so much to help heal me.”
On Aug. 5, 2021, an Air Force C-130J Hercules flew over Manhattan. At an altitude of 8,000 feet, the elite jumpers of the U.S. Navy Parachute Team exited the aircraft. After a brief freefall, the sailors opened their parachutes over Central Park. Streaming red smoke behind them, two jumpers flew a massive American flag as they spiraled down toward the park’s Great Lawn. The jumpers were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of New Yorkers.
The U.S. Navy Parachute Team started in 1969 when SEALs and UDT sailors volunteered to perform jumps at air shows on the weekend. In 1974, the Chief of Naval Operations officially commissioned the team as “The Leap Frogs.” Their mission is to demonstrate Navy excellence throughout the United States with their demonstration jumps. Each Leap Frog has conducted real-world operations before volunteering to join the team. After a three-year commitment to The Leap Frogs, jumpers return to their operational units.
The historic jump over Manhattan was a milestone for The Leap Frogs. “We were honored to be the first to ever jump into Central Park,” the team shared on their Facebook page. The Leap Frogs are a part of the United States Naval Special Warfare Command and are comprised of active-duty SEALs, SWCC and support personnel.