NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — They lost their U.S. Navy son in the most horrific way, but Patrick and Teri Caserta are determined that his death by suicide will make life better for other troubled members of the military.
The Casertas say a series of setbacks and an abusive superior led their son Brandon off the edge. It started with Navy SEAL training in San Diego.
“He trained his whole life for it. He collapsed on the beach holding one of those rafts,” said Patrick Caserta.
He was told it was just shin splints.
“It was a broken leg and they refused to do an X-ray. They threw him in the back of a pickup truck, they took him to the famous bell everybody knows about. He refused to ring it, so they rang it for him.”
Ringing the bell — a symbol for when a SEAL candidate gives up — dropped him from the SEALs program. For Brandon Caserta, that was the first slap in the face.
“He had a sore spot about that because he didn’t ring it himself,” Patrick Caserta said.
Brandon Caserta grew up in Arizona as a multisport athlete, involved in football, baseball, track, karate and swim. His father says if he was going to drop out of SEALS training, he wanted to go on his own terms.
“They treat those kids like failures,” he said. When they go through the re-rate process “… they give them 30 minutes to pick a job.”
Patrick Caserta brings personal experience to his son’s case from two relevant perspectives, he not only served 21 years in the Navy himself, he retired as a senior chief command career counselor.
Caserta changed his rate — his job in the Navy — to aviation electrician and went to Florida for training.
He got assigned to a helicopter squadron on Naval Station Norfolk. His bad experience with the SEALS followed him, his parents said.
“He was reporting to us that they were treating him horribly and they didn’t like him, and they kept calling him a BUDS DUD,” Patrick Caserta said.
In other words, a failure at BUDS: Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. About four out of every five who even qualify for the course wash out. Caserta wasn’t a SEAL, but now he wasn’t even using his new training. He was working in what’s called the “resale outlet.”
“They had him selling candy. The government spent $300,000 to send him to school and his command had him selling candy,” Patrick Caserta said.
To make matters worse, Caserta’s parents say he was being mentally abused and harassed by his direct supervisor. A Navy report said his lead petty officer was eventually removed from the position, and his abusive actions likely contributed to Brandon’s death.
A Navy spokesperson said she could not comment further.
Brandon Caserta did get some good news in late 2017, when he was approved for an aircrewman position based in Florida. He would be hunting down submarines with an aircraft.
He was excited about advancing his military career. But then his command in Norfolk said he wasn’t physically fit for the transfer after a bicycle accident, and wasn’t making progress on his qualifications. For Brandon Caserta, it was the last slap in the face.
In late June 2018, Brandon Caserta wrote four pages to his parents: A summary of two years of torment, he told of how he had lost any motivation or drive and wanted the depression to be over.
He included six $100 bills to be given to friends.
At age 21, Brandon Caserta walked to the rear of a running helicopter and ended his life.
“He missed the first time when he jumped into the blade,” his father said. “No one tried to grab him, nobody tackled him, nothing. He did it the second time and succeeded.”
Navy documents show that concerned friends in his squadron took Caserta to the Wing Chaplain or to their own places of worship before he died.
But Brandon Caserta’s parents are more angry with his chain of command.
They say their son was sending the Navy a message with the grotesque way he ended his life.
“We feel it’s ‘Look what you made me do. I’ve got guts that you’ve never seen before,’ and that he wasn’t afraid.”
His parents want to hold Caserta’s chain of command responsible for what they see as the bullying, abuse and berating he suffered. And they say the base had just had two recent suicides, so it should have been on heightened awareness.
“There should have been a safety stand-down and a suicide awareness stand-down that morning. There was none. If that had happened, Brandon would be alive,” Patrick Caserta said.
The Casertas want a change in the way the military investigates any suicide.
They’re working on legislation they will call the Brandon Act, and have contacted members of Congress including Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). After hosting a roundtable last month on military suicide at JEB Fort Eustis, Kaine talked about Caserta’s case and how he will support the legislation.
“If the people who are needing help, if it’s the command’s fault for them being suicidal, then an investigation will be done by an unbiased entity,” Teri Caserta said.
“So that the command can’t cover up the investigation,” Patrick Caserta added.
“Our son asked us to get justice for him in his letter. We would have done it anyway, but he put it in writing and put a lot of pressure on us. We want to help people and we have already.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.