A Sailor’s Defeat, a Family’s Victory
The U.S. government and services are working to address the mental health of veterans and service members through the Brandon Act.
Patrick and Teri Caserta first heard of their son’s troubles through his command when they read his suicide note.
“It was the Navy’s fault—not, I repeat, not yours,” read a passage of the letter written by the 21-year-old Brandon Caserta, a Navy Seal candidate.
Another note found among his personal belongings showed what the service was like for Caserta.
“You all made it HELL (sic) for me every day here. Why should I get punished for getting injured in seal (sic) training then get denied medical? I was only running up to 20 miles a day on a broken leg, silly me, I was fine,” wrote Caserta in 2018.
“It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, you could be the golden person and you do something to make them mad as simple as saying ‘I’m depressed, I need help,’ and you turn to the other side, they get rid of you,” said Patrick Caserta, a Navy and Coast Guard veteran.
The Casertas are part of a growing number of veterans and veteran families who are prompting activists, other families and the services to take action.
In the first quarter of 2023, 135 service members took their own lives, according to the Department of Defense data. This information includes active service, reserves and National Guardsmen. In all of 2022, the figure was 492 and in 2021, it was 519. Before the pandemic, in 2019, 504 people died by suicide.
In 2016, this figure was 480.
But the Casertas sought to change the lives behind these statistics by speaking publicly and lobbying Congress.
With the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, another bill also became law: the Brandon Act.
This regulation, named in memory of Brandon Caserta, is “designed to protect service members who experience mental health emergencies and reduce the stigma around reporting,” said co-sponsor Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) in a 2021 statement.
“Our active-duty service members should never face repercussions for seeking the mental health care services they need and deserve,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), Marine veteran and co-sponsor of the bill.
This was a victory for all involved, but only one step in the right direction.
The Casertas now advocate for full implementation across all services, and more importantly a change in culture.
Patrick Caserta said his son had one previous suicide attempt, and despite having over a dozen witnesses, nobody reacted or reached out to help.
“I am proud to have been able to work with the Caserta family to raise awareness of the issue and get the Brandon Act passed into law,” Rep. Moulton told SIGNAL Media.
In a recent press briefing, Sabrina Singh, deputy Pentagon press secretary said, “Over the past two and a half years, the department has taken meaningful steps to counter harmful behavior in all its forms, including suicide.”
Singh explained that the DoD works on five lines of effort:
- Foster a Supportive Environment
- Improve the Delivery of Mental Health Care
- Address Stigma and Other Barriers to Care
- Revise Suicide Prevention Training
- Promote a Culture of Lethal Means Safety
As the services update their policies regarding harmful behavior, Caserta believes that once it is acceptable to seek help, most issues can be treated. “Many of these people just need some help and four, or five, six, seven sessions, and they’ll be healed, or they’ll be taught how to get on that road to healing, and that that is what counters this stuff,” Caserta said.
Moulton still sees a tough road ahead.
“While the DoD still has a lot of work to do to curb the shockingly high number of suicides among our troops, this bill is a massive first step in the right direction,” Moulton said in an email.
The DoD has had a suicide prevention line since 2007. It has handled more than 7.1 million calls, according to its website.
The Navy issued a manual that encourages commands to invest time in actively listening to sailors. It lays out the criteria for calling professional help and when to invite nonspecialist interventions from counselors or chaplains.
The Navy declined to comment, beyond facilitating documents and statements.
“We were on our own most of the way,” Teri Caserta said. She explained how in 2021, organizations started to join their effort to push the legislative process. Still, most of their support came through social media and connecting directly with concerned individuals.
Advocacy gives the Casertas the satisfaction of helping other families live through the same tragedy they did. “The Brandon story saves lives,” Teri Caserta said.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, you are not alone. Call the Veteran’s Crisis Hotline at 988 and visit veteranscrisisline.net/ to learn more.