A panel featuring Sen. Mark Kelly, along with the parents of Brandon Caserta, was held at ASU’s Tempe campus on April 12 to discuss the Brandon Act and how it will combat the mental health crisis in the military.
The Brandon Act, named after the fallen U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Caserta, will ensure that service members will have a direct and confidential access to mental health support.
It will require the U.S. Department of Defense to create a process and reduce the stigma of mental health, while protecting confidentiality of those reporting a crisis.
“The fact of the matter is there’s still a stigma around mental health,” Kelly said. “We need to figure out a way to outgrow that, and this is a good first step in doing that. Serving in uniform is a tough job, and it often comes with its consequences. Folks face challenges that sometimes lead to mental health challenges.”
At the panel, Brandon’s mother, Teri Caserta of Peoria, recalled her son and what he stood for. She said he was funny, kind and generous, and that he lived by his karate code words: honor, respect, patience and kindness.
After joining the military in 2015 to try his hand at becoming a Navy SEAL, Brandon collapsed during a workout and was reclassified as an aviation electrician at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.
During his time there, he was bullied and hazed by his supposed peers, Teri said. He was labeled by them as a BUD/S Dud — slang for Navy SEAL dropout.
Brandon tried to seek help for his mental health battles, but to no avail. He was told that he needed to “suck it up.”
On June 25, 2018, Brandon died by suicide by running into the spinning rear tail of a helicopter.
“Had he not encountered multiple barriers to accessing mental health services including the stigma of self-reporting, he would likely be here today,” Kelly said. “A country with such a strong military, we can’t continue to fail our service members in this way.”
Teri said that more than 22 veterans and three active service members die daily to suicide. For them, she and her husband created and fought for the Brandon Act.
“Brandon’s death opened Patrick and my eyes to the suicide epidemic in our active-duty and veteran communities,” she said.
In 2019, Teri and Brandon’s father, Patrick Caserta, drove to Washington, D.C., to present the Brandon Act to Congress.
After meeting with Teri and Patrick, Kelly sponsored the Brandon Act and fought for its language in being passed.
“When Patrick and Teri called on me to continue the charge on the Brandon Act, I immediately knew this was a worthy fight,” Kelly said.
“Patrick and I could not have asked for a better senator to sponsor the bill,” Teri said. “Sen. Kelly, who is also a veteran himself, knows how important it is for our service members to be mentally fit as well as physically fit. Patrick and I are very honored that Sen. Kelly sponsored the Brandon Act. He welcomed two parents of a deceased sailor into his office and fought so hard for the language of the Brandon Act to be included in this year’s defense bill.
“Sen. Kelly, you helped Brandon’s legacy live on. You are amazing.”
On Dec. 27, 2021, President Joe Biden passed the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, and within its language was the Brandon Act.
“This is only the beginning; this is only the start,” Kelly said. “We worked hard to get these key portions of the Brandon Act in the defense bill last year, and they are a big positive step forward. But our work to destigmatize mental health care and also increase mental health care in the military will continue.”
During his 25 years in the Navy, Kelly served in the Gulf War. Kelly said Brandon’s case is tragic, but it happens far too often within the U.S. military. He hopes to see immediate change.
“These kinds of things play out in data,” Kelly said. “What I hope to see is a decrease in the number of folks that are ending their lives because of a mental health crisis.”
Patrick is hoping his son’s story, along with the efforts he, Teri and Kelly have made, will save the lives of many military members — past and present — for years to come.
“Our son’s story needs to be heard and used to save lives,” he said. “We will continue to work with Congress to address issues that need to be fixed and make the military a safer, better place.”
As senator, Kelly recognizes he has a responsibility to see this process through until the very end. He will continue to take the necessary steps to carry out the Brandon Act.
“My job as a U.S. senator is to help address problems that our country has,” Kelly said.
“We have a lot of problems. This is something that is not easy to fix, but there are some obvious steps we can take to make it much better so folks that are in a similar situation to Brandon don’t wind up with the same result.”