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Peoria man’s parents fight for military mental health

Son’s death prompts battle for better help

Posted 6/17/21

From a young age, Brandon Caserta wanted to be a Navy SEAL and it was a driving force in everything that he did.

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subscriber exclusive

Peoria man’s parents fight for military mental health

Son’s death prompts battle for better help

Posted

From a young age, Brandon Caserta wanted to be a Navy SEAL and it was a driving force in everything that he did.

He was heavily involved in karate and swimming since the age of 4, so much so that vacations for the Caserta family were planned around lessons and classes.

A multi-sport athlete at Liberty and Sunrise Mountain high schools, he decided to quit football after a couple injuries and replace it with the swim team — a smart move for a young man who knew his future would be in the water.

He joined the Navy in 2015 after graduating from high school at the age of 17 and experienced a period of sustained bullying and hazing from not only his fellow sailors but also leadership, with no support from his commanding officers.

The lack of support ended in Brandon dying by suicide on June 25, 2018 on his Navy Helicopter Squadron’s flight line in Norfolk, Virgina.

Now his parents, Teri and Patrick, are fighting for his legacy and justice.

They are in Washington, D.C. this week promoting the Brandon Act, named in honor of their son, which would require the Department of Defense to establish a standard phrase service members may use to initiate a mandatory and immediate mental health evaluation referral.

The Casertas say the Brandon Act is truly a matter of life and death and will prevent other service members from having to go through what their son went through.

“Brandon had a smile that made everyone want to smile. He had Magic Johnson’s smile. He cared about everyone and was always there for them,” Patrick said. “It’s easier to change laws than it is to change ideas and habits. Everything happens for a reason, the challenge is finding that reason. ... This act will keep service members alive while they are trying to navigate through the difficult aspects of the military and the road blocks that are put before them.”

Bullying and hazing are not uncommon in the Navy, and those actions perpetrated on Brandon were well known to those in his chain of command.

Within about a year from joining the Navy, he began SEAL training and the harassment was in full force.

Teri said they would steal his uniforms, boots and other items that were issued to him.

“We were told he had a target on his back,” she said. “The harassment was not done by just one person. It was done by the entire command and his direct leadership, in particular his command career counselor,” she said.

Patrick added no one helped him and he felt he could not get help from anyone because of the retaliation he knew he would receive. Brandon told many people he was depressed and all they told him was “suck it up” and go back to work, his father said.

Petty Officer Caserta’s death was one of 68 Navy suicides in 2018 — at the time, the highest year on record. Since then, the Defense Department has reported 377 active duty suicides in 2020, up from 348 in 2019, and 326 in 2018.

Patrick, a retired Navy officer of 22 years, said it is on record that his son was one of the best and hardest working members of his command, and their treatment of him should be held accountable.

As a former member of the Armed Forces, he said he understands the military’s inner workings, but it is clear something must change.

“They make you feel less than a person. That shouldn’t be happening. Modern America is different. The military cannot operate the way it did in the past. Today 17-21 year olds have been raised differently than they were back then,” he said. “We want to make sure our kids are better off and we hope they don’t go through what we went through.”

The bill would establish a standard phrase, like “Brandon Act,” that, when spoken by a member of the Armed Forces to a commanding officer or supervisor, would trigger a confidential mental health evaluation referral that would not require a notification to the command, avoiding fear for retribution and the stigma of self-reporting.

The bill was first introduced last year as part of the of the National Defense Authorization Act but was stripped out during conference. Now it is back with help from the Senate, including Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly.
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., is the sponsor and Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz. is co-sponsoring.

The bill has been reintroduced and referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Kelly requested Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Ranking Member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., include the bill in the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, which will be released to the public most likely at the end of July.

Moulton said every American, especially heroes in uniform, deserves mental health support at work, but Brandon was let down. The proposed bill exists because Teri and Patrick have been fierce advocates for their son and refuse to accept American service members have to settle for the failed system that is supposed to get them mental health help, Moulton said.

“I am hopeful that other parents of service members will never have to experience what they have gone through,” Moulton said. “By passing this bill, Congress can empower service members to quickly get help in an emergency as soon as they confide in someone that they needed. They would simply have to say, ‘I have a Brandon Act concern.’ If this were the case for Brandon he would still be alive today.”

Philip Haldiman can be reached at phaldiman@newszap.com, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.

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