Liberty High School graduate Brandon Caserta was known for being kind and generous.
Now the late Navy sailor will help others through the Brandon Act, which, when President Joe Biden signs the act, will make it easier for service members to seek mental health care confidentially.
“He absolutely loved helping everybody,” said his mother, Teri Caserta. “I don’t think there was anybody he turned away for help. He would even help somebody who did not care for him. Of course, they’d become friends after that.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) revealed Dec. 15 that the Senate passed the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that included the Brandon Act, legislation they introduced named in honor of the fallen U.S. Navy petty officer third class. The act is headed to Biden’s desk.
“For months, I worked with Republicans and Democrats to get the language of the Brandon Act in the defense bill,” Kelly said.
“Today, our hard work has paid off. Thanks to the tireless advocacy of Teri and Patrick Caserta, and bipartisan support in Congress, our efforts will help us confront military suicide head-on and save the lives of other young service members.”
Moulton, the bill’s author, added, “America’s service members shouldn’t have to settle for a broken system that’s incapable of providing them with the mental health support they need, and today’s vote means they no longer have to. This bill is an important piece of Brandon’s legacy — one that will save the lives of so many great American heroes. I’m proud of his parents for fighting to make sure that families of other service members never have to share their experience, and I look forward to continuing to do this work alongside them.”
Brandon died by suicide on June 25, 2018, on the flight line at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. After his death, his parents and friends discovered six notes in which Brandon attributed his suicide to persistent hazing and bullying from some members and leaders of his Navy helicopter squadron.
The Brandon Act expands the existing law that regulates how service members are referred for mental health evaluations, in order to provide a confidential channel for service members to self-report mental health issues. The process would protect the confidentiality of service members, similar to the restricted reporting option that protects victims of sexual assault.
The Brandon Act is supported by several original cosponsors, including Rep. Joseph Morelle (D-NY), Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), Rep. Kaialiʻi Kahele (D-HI), Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) and Rep. Marilyn Strickland (D-WA).
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) is an original co-sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate. Additional members of Congress joined in supporting amendments to include this measure in the NDAA.
Teri said she was in tears when she and Patrick heard the news.
“We’re elated,” she said.
“It’s definitely needed,” Patrick added. “There is a lot more work that needs to be done to get suicides down to zero in the military. There are 25 a day at the moment. The public doesn’t really know this. It’s not that anybody is keeping this a secret. It’s just not a good subject to write about, obviously. We want to put a stop to it. It’s unnecessary for all those deaths to happen.”
The Peoria couple did not know this was a problem until Brandon’s death. Patrick was on active duty for 22 years and in Navy recruiting for 15.
“I had no idea,” he added. “I don’t understand why I didn’t know.”
Labor of love
The Brandon Act’s passage was a labor of love for the Casertas.
Patrick and Teri sought help from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema but, Patrick said, staff would not help with the act. In a moment of desperation, the couple bought a new car, hopped in it and drove to Washington, D.C.
“In 2019, we were allowed in Capitol Hill without an escort,” she said. “We went door to door for the most part. That’s how it started. Ironically, the chief of staff at Congressman Moulton’s office had this tragedy happen to him, too.
“He sat down and talked to us, what they could do and how to work with them. After that, we went to Martha McSally’s office. The act passed the House and, due to Arizona laws, she lost the election and her staff had to leave right away.”
That was a “crunch time,” she said, when the Brandon Act went to committee in 2020. It did not make it through. However, Kelly took over and “ran with it on the Senate side,” she said.
“We got to meet with him personally and by Zoom,” Teri said. “Rep. Moulton took the House, and Kelly took the Senate. They were able to get it passed in the House, and the two of them worked together and was able to get it in the Senate. They did outstanding work on this. Sen. Kelly is retired Navy, and Congressman Moulton is a veteran. They convinced everyone that this needed to be done.”
The couple said Brandon’s story can be used to save others.
“This is an important story,” Terri said. “This is a victory for the service members. They’re going to benefit from this. Future veterans will benefit. Active duty will get the help they need.
“We want to work with the VA and Congress to get more help for active duty. We need to decrease veteran suicides, too. The biggest key is how to ask for help, get help, and learning that people want to help you. That’s the biggest thing that a service member needs to understand. Help is out there.”
Where to get help
The Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Find more information about the Lifeline at suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call directly by dialing 1-800-273-8255.
It’s also possible to text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.