THE PENTAGON (WAVY) – A law designed to make it easier and more confidential for military members in crisis to get mental health services now has an implementation plan after a lengthy delay by the Defense Department.
“It’s been a long four years for us,” said Teri Caserta, mother of Brandon Caserta, in his memory the law is named.
Brandon Caserta was 21 when he died by suicide on Naval Station Norfolk. He had washed out of SEAL training in San Diego, but so do the vast majority of those who even qualify for the training. His chain of command bullied and harassed him about failing to become a SEAL until he could no longer take it.
In June 2018, Brandon jumped into the rotor of a helicopter. A military investigation found that his lead petty officer’s abusive actions were a likely contributing factor.
Soon after Brandon’s death, his parents began a quest through the parallel bureaucracies of Congress and the military to ensure their son did not die in vain. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) sponsored the Brandon Act, and President Biden signed it into law in late 2021, but until now the military services had yet to put it into action.
Teri and Patrick Caserta attended a private ceremony Friday afternoon with Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros, Jr.
“We’re finally at the point where it’s gonna be implemented. After today, they will have 45 days to implement it,” Teri Caserta said.
“Our greatest strength is our people, and we are committed to their well-being,” Cisneros said in a Defense post. “Therefore, I firmly believe that seeking mental health treatment is a sign of strength and resilience. This policy, spurred by the passage of the Brandon Act, is an important step in ensuring that our service members are able to seek mental health treatment when and how they need it.
“We honor Petty Officer Brandon Caserta’s memory by ensuring that our military services have procedures and processes in place that allow service members to seek help confidentially, for any reason, at any time and in any environment, and aim to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health care.”
According to the Department of Defense, implementation of the policy will occur in two phases.
In phase one, which should be implemented within 45 days, the services will establish procedures to implement the policy for service members on active duty. In phase two, the services will establish procedures to implement the policy for service members not serving on active duty.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pressed the Chief of Naval Operations and the Navy Secretary last summer on why the Brandon Act had not been implemented. He released this statement shortly after Friday’s signing:
“For over a year, I’ve been working with Brandon Caserta’s family to push the Department of Defense to implement the Brandon Act, which will help servicemembers access the mental health support they need. The Casertas lost their son under unimaginably horrific circumstances and have turned their grief into an effort to help other servicemembers. I’m glad DOD is finally implementing this important bill to honor Brandon and prevent future tragedies. While today is a step forward, I’m going to keep working to strengthen mental health resources for servicemembers in this year’s upcoming defense authorization bill.”
Following clusters of suicides connected with USS George Washington and the Regional Maintenance Center, the Casertas have been the go-to resource for parents of sailors in crisis.
“It is even worse. It really is. These parents, they can see, they can hear it in their voices that they are struggling, and they don’t know how to help them,” Teri Caserta said.
The measure streamlines the process for service members to get mental health services, and the Casertas say it will also bar any retaliation against those members.
“It’s a long time coming,” she said. “There’s a lot of emotion. Just knowing that DoD will get it implemented lifts a lot off of our shoulders.”
“We know he’s smiling down on us over this,” Patrick Caserta said. “This is what Brandon would want. We think he’d be very proud. This moment that we’ve been waiting for, exciting as it is, it’s the end result that we’re looking for. That’s to save lives and continue to save lives, and that’s Brandon’s legacy. That’s what we care about more than anything.”
The Casertas say they will continue to watch the numbers, and accountability will be the most effective measure to reduce military suicides. They said Friday they hope the implementation policy for the Brandon Act will call more attention to the many mental health programs the military already has in place.
Additional mental health resources include the 988 Veterans Crisis Line, Military OneSource nonmedical counseling, and the 24/7 Psychological Health Resource Center. For more information, visit health.mil/brandonact.