Pentagon implements the Brandon Act

Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., under secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness of the United States, signs the Brandon Act. (Teri Caserta/Submitted)

After years of back and forth, the Brandon Act will now be implemented after having been signed by the Pentagon.

The Brandon Act, named after the fallen U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta, will ensure that service members will have direct access to mental health support.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) must now create a process and work to reduce the stigma of mental health, while protecting confidentiality of those reporting a crisis.

Patrick and Teri Caserta, Brandon’s parents, have been working on their son’s namesake bill since 2019. For them, this has been “a long time coming.”

“Don’t get me wrong, we were extremely happy that it is finally, finally being implemented,” Teri said. “We are just heartbroken that it took this long.”

“We’re moving in the right direction now working with DoD, together, like we have from Day 1,” Patrick added. “It was all about saving service members’ lives. It’s never about anything else.”

Patrick said that throughout the process of getting the Brandon Act implemented, a stigma of “us against them” was felt. While it was always a battle with Brandon’s command to find out more information, he added it was never, in he and his wife’s eyes, a battle with the military in its entirety.

“It stems from Brandon’s command. It was us against them,” said Patrick, who spent 22 years in the Navy as a counselor.

“Now, don’t get me wrong, they caused it. They killed our son. But on top of that, they covered it up. … It was us against the command, but as far as DoD went, and the military, the Navy and everything, we love the military, and we went to Congress to help them. Our mission was to save lives for them.

“We didn’t want it to happen to someone else. So, it was in the name and spirit of working with them, and it was never us against them. But I know that sigma was out there.”

Prior to Brandon joining the military in 2015 to try his hand at becoming a Navy SEAL, Patrick and Teri had no reason to believe their son was experiencing mental health problems. He was given a “clean bill of health” by the Vet Center.

“He was not found suicidal whatsoever,” Patrick said.

During a workout, Brandon collapsed and was reclassified as an aviation electrician at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.

Throughout his time there, he was bullied and hazed by his supposed peers. He was labeled by them as a BUD/S Dud — slang for Navy SEAL dropout.

“He developed (mental health problems) while he was stationed in Norfolk due to the hazing, bullying, sexual assault, retaliation that he endured from that command,” Teri said.

“What they put him through is horrible,” Patrick added. “We’ll never know exactly everything, but it was bad.”

Brandon tried to seek help for his mental health battles, but to no avail. He was told that he needed to “suck it up.”

“Our son was shut down many times over the years,” Patrick said. “In particular, four or five times the year that he died. … It was shocking to learn when people came forward that he told the command he was depressed, and they told him to suck it up and get back to work.”

On June 25, 2018, Brandon died by suicide by running into the spinning rear tail of a helicopter.

In 2019, Brandon and Teri drove to Washington, D.C., to present the Brandon Act to Congress.

After a meeting between the two and Sen. Mark Kelly, Kelly agreed to sponsor the Brandon Act and fought for its language to be passed.

“He took it and ran with it on the Senate side,” said Patrick, who added senators from other states helped. “We wanted Arizona to be the lead sponsor.”

Patrick added that the city of Peoria was incredibly supportive throughout the proceedings. At a city level, he knew there wasn’t much that Peoria city government could do, but having the support was meaningful.

“They wanted to help, but they were city so they really couldn’t do too much, but they supported us and were like cheerleaders in the background and they stayed in touch with us throughout the whole thing,” he said.

“The Peoria police officers, the city council have helped us and the mayor of Peoria, too. I mean, it’s a great city we live in.”

Despite DoD signing the Brandon Act, Patrick and Teri know there is still plenty of work to do.

“We have our foundation now of people, and we’re going to focus on that,” Patrick said. “We know that we will have to make amendments; we do know that. We do know that suicide is 100% preventable. So, the goal is zero — period. Anything above zero is acceptable. So, we have a lot of work to do, even if it goes down. There’s a lot more work to do.

“But we’re in the lifesaving business. That’s what we do, and we will continue to do for the rest of our lives.”

All of the work that was done on the front end to get the Brandon Act implemented, Patrick said, should make it easier to make changes moving forward.

“We have a relationship with the Pentagon now and Congress, and we believe all of us are working together,” he said. “We’re on the same page, and all to save lives.”