Members of Congress love to talk about how important it is to care for military veterans. But in the view of Frank Larkin, there has been a lot of talk but little action. And he wants to change that.
Larkin, who has been Senate sergeant-at-arms for the past three years, will depart his post at the end of March. His decision to leave stems from the death of his son, an emotionally taxing experience for him and his family and one that gave Larkin a new mission in life.
In a wide-ranging interview in his Capitol office, Larkin also discussed the criticism levied at his office over press access in the Senate, security threats facing the building, funding challenges for the Capitol Police and possible changes to the security process for entry into the complex.
A Navy SEAL and 10-year combat veteran, Larkin’s son took his own life in April after struggling with a brain injury as a result of explosions. Now, Larkin plans to honor his son’s legacy by dedicating his time to working on projects to help wounded warriors, specifically traumatic brain research related to a pattern of injury related to military blast exposure that his son suffered from.
“It’s been a hard loss for our family. I was very proud of him and his service,” he said. “He’s somebody that the system left behind, and he fell through the cracks.”
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A former Navy SEAL himself and a member of the Secret Service for more than two decades, Larkin’s role as the SAA — a position that puts him in daily contact with senators and their offices — gives him a unique voice.
“I don’t want to abuse my position, but it certainly gives me a platform,” he said. “How can anyone keep me out of the room? Not only have I had a history of public service … but now I feel this obligation to help others.”
And Larkin comes ready to fight. He said Congress has stymied some promising research programs because of its reliance on continuing resolutions to fund the government while members have resigned themselves to talking points and media campaigns in lieu of any legislative action on the issue of veterans’ care.
“The majority of the members had no idea what happened to me and my son, and I’m within visible reach,” Larkin said. “These men and women volunteered to go in harm’s way to protect this nation, and we promised that we’d take care of them. But we’re not living up to that promise.”
“As far as this institution goes, I just don’t see a lot getting done to address that,” he added.
Press access pendulum
The sergeant-at-arms is a position critical to the functions of the chamber and one that often operates in the shadows of the political circus that occurs daily in the Capitol.
The office has the largest budget and the most staff members on Capitol Hill. The SAA oversees security operations in the Capitol complex, both physical and technological, and is tasked with enforcing the rules of the Senate.
And then there are the more ceremonial aspects of the job, which include escorting the president and other official guests during visits to the chamber, arranging the swearing-in ceremony for new senators and leading the Senate over to the House during joint sessions of Congress, like the State of the Union. The SAA is also in charge of the Senate gavel.
The role has become more critical as security concerns have heightened. Media attention on Congress surged after President Donald Trump was sworn in and as Republicans pursued major overhauls of the U.S. health insurance system and tax code.
Reporters have chafed at new restrictions put in place in the Capitol that have at times limited access to elected officials. Weekly trips to the Capitol by Vice President Mike Pence and his own protective details have also spurred enhanced security and greater scrutiny of reporters’ credentials.
Larkin, who recognizes at times the pendulum may have swung too far toward the side of security concerns, said it’s a delicate balance between upholding the First Amendment and maintaining adequate safety measures.
“There’s always been media policy in the building that has been set by the leadership. … Whether some of those policies were actively enforced or not is debatable,” he said. “With the influx of increased media folks and the congestion that we’ve seen in our halls … it really started to present us with some safety challenges.”
Larkin called the coordination between the respective media galleries a “work in progress” and said there are active efforts underway to ensure access is not interrupted in the Capitol in the future.
Closing, opening doors
Surprisingly, the greatest thorn in the side of the SAA when it comes to security in the Capitol might not come from reporters or visitors, but from the members themselves.
Larkin said his office tries to “match our security posture to the prevailing threat, the real world threat, without going over the top.”
“Sometimes that doesn’t always cross up with members and staff who want more doors open for convenience, as opposed to walking another 50 feet,” he said. “Unfortunately, that takes resources and it costs money; it’s not trivial.”
A big change may soon be coming to the security process for people entering the Capitol. Larkin said discussions are underway to potentially move the screening checkpoint to kiosks outside the physical building.
“We’re trying to push that security screening outside the building,” he said. “It’s not optimum to confront the threat from inside the skin of the building.”
He sees the project as one of several unfunded mandates for the Capitol Police, a unit of the SAA’s office that is in his view facing the greatest funding threats.
“Congress has acquired a new office building. The Capitol Police have been asked to increase security on some garages,” he said. “They are not planned activities, they’re not funded, they’re not resourced. So we have to go into our existing manpower pool. We have been leveraging overtime to an unprecedented level, and it’s spiraling up.”
“If we don’t get a handle on this, it’s not going to be a good consequence for the office,” Larkin added.
One of the biggest and least visible threats to the Capitol, Larkin said, is the security of its computer systems.
“It’s getting more complicated. We’ve got some adversaries out there …[and] they’re coming after us,” he said.
Despite all the challenges facing his successor, Larkin had a simple message for whoever gets the job.
“Stay true to the mission. It’s a challenge to protect this campus, but stay true to the mission, not get swallowed up in the politics,” he said. “What’s it like to be the sergeant-at-arms? It’s like swimming in an ocean of sharks, but when you get to the beach, it’s all about the landmines.”
Correction, March 12, 2018 | A prior version of this article stated Frank Larkin would be leaving to work with the Wounded Warriors Project. Larkin will be working on projects to help wounded warriors.