Photos of Brandon Caserta decorate the Peoria home of his parents, Teri and Patrick. After their son died by suicide in the Navy, the couple lobbied Congress for legislation to expand mental health services to members of the military. (Photo by Madeline Bautista/Cronkite News)
PEORIA – The mountain that sits just steps away from Teri and Patrick Caserta’s backyard was their son Brandon’s favorite hiking spot. Today, a statue of an angel faces the peak, marking the place where his ashes were spread.
Four years ago, the 21-year-old Navy petty officer third class killed himself on the flight line at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia. His parents and friends later discovered notes describing hazing and bullying from some members and leaders of his helicopter squadron.
The tragedy drove the Casertas to lobby Congress for legislation to expand mental health services to members of the military. That proposal, named for their only child, is part of the new National Defense Authorization Act.
“We just don’t want anybody to go through what we did, and we certainly want to help the ones who are going through what Brandon did,” Teri Caserta said. “They serve our country. They volunteered. … And they’re treated like this? They should be put up on a pedestal.”
Earlier in April, the Casertas joined U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., members of Arizona State University ROTC and representatives of the ASU Pat Tillman Veterans Center for a panel discussion about the Brandon Act, which became law as part of the larger defense measure in December.
It requires a mental health evaluation for service members who self-report a need and allows members to seek help outside the chain of command and for cases to be kept confidential. The measure also mandates that the Department of Defense provide annual training on how to recognize when members may need a mental health evaluation.
“This law is designed to protect service members who experience mental health emergencies by requiring – requiring – the Department of Defense to create a process and reduce the stigma … a process that also protects confidentiality,” said Kelly, a former combat pilot who served in the Navy for 25 years and championed the act after hearing Brandon’s story.
“This is only the beginning.”
Suicide rates have been increasing among members of the military and veterans alike. An annual DOD report, released in September, showed rates for active duty service members alone went from 20.3 suicides per 100,000 members in 2015 to 28.7 in 2020, with increases across all branches. That compares with a national suicide rate of 13.5 in 2020.
Last year, 580 service members died by suicide – 384 active duty members, 77 reservists and 119 National Guard members. Military members who take their own lives are largely men younger than 30.
The DOD report cites a number of risk factors, including relationship and financial problems, ineffective coping skills, access to lethal means of injury and reluctance to seek help.
The USO, a nonprofit that supports military members and their families, notes that for active duty service members, “there’s an additional layer of potential stressors on top of the regular ups-and-downs of life that puts them at risk.”
Yet most who may need help aren’t getting it.
Military research finds that up to 70% of service members with mental health symptoms do not seek treatment, and 35% have reported that they worry seeking help would negatively impact their careers.
Brandon Caserta did get some help. It just wasn’t enough.
The Casertas invited Cronkite News into their home to talk more about Brandon’s experience in the military and the son they adored.
Stepping into Brandon’s old bedroom, it immediately becomes apparent how much he loved to build, from the Lego sets he made with his father to the metal figures the size of one’s hand that he built as he got older.
Patrick Caserta recalled the passion Brandon had for building anything with his hands. Using a set of tweezers and creativity, Brandon constructed Star Wars characters such as BB-8.
“He could see things differently, and he always found ways to make things easier and better,” which, Patrick said, made Brandon such a good fit for the military. “He learned that by doing this stuff.”
In 2015, he joined the Navy with the dream of becoming a SEAL – the special operations force that’s part of the Naval Special Warfare Command. But a year later, a broken leg forced him to drop out of the training, reclassify as an aviation electrician and transfer to Norfolk, attached to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28.
“From the very first day he arrived there,” Teri Caserta told the audience at the ASU event, “they call them a ‘BUD/S dud.’” BUD/S is shorthand for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. “He was bullied and hazed, retaliated against. He asked for help many times. They told him that he needs to suck it up and that he was fine.”
An investigation later showed that Brandon had been recommended for disciplinary review because of an issue over a driver’s license and his lead petty officer had created a hostile work environment by being belligerent. At one point, according to a military investigative report, a friend took Brandon to the chaplain for help with depression.
Before his death, the report said, Brandon emailed two others, who were deployed at the time, wondering “what was the meaning of life.”
He died soon after that, on June 25, 2018.
‘I wish we had a magic wand’
As the Casertas began pushing for change, they set up a Facebook page about their son and the legislation he inspired. Even today, Teri regularly gets messages from relatives of other service members who are struggling. She does what she can to help.
“I just reach out and ask them, ‘What can I do for you?’ And of course I have to tell Brandon’s story,” she said. “So, yeah, it’s been almost four years that that’s what we’ve been doing.”
“We don’t have a magic wand, and we’re not telling them anything they probably shouldn’t already know,” said Patrick, who spent 22 years in the Navy. “But the fact that we respond and care, that just carries so much weight with people.
In its annual report, the Department of Defense said it has taken steps to address the issue of suicide in the ranks. The agency is piloting a program in which service members complete an annual wellness check with a trained counselor, and it’s expanding another effort aimed at reducing stigma and barriers around seeking help.
The agency also added suicide prevention to its firearm safety training and says it’s working with young service members to improve problem-solving and coping skills.
“Our efforts must address the many aspects of life that impact suicide,” Karin Orvis, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, said in a statement accompanying DOD’s report in September. “The department is engaged in implementing a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention and is providing tailored resources to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is much more work ahead of us,” Orvis said, “and we will not relent in our efforts to provide the care and support our service members and their families need and deserve.”
Kelly said the military must find a way to turn the tide: “A country with such a strong military … we can’t continue to fail our service members in this way.”
The Casertas are thankful that some progress has been made through passage of the Brandon Act, and that they have been able to honor their son with their efforts.
“We were able to have his legacy live on by the Brandon Act. And he’s saving lives,” Patrick said as he looked at a photo of Brandon in the living room. “And that smile right there is always smiling on us.
“So we know he’s happy with what we’re doing. … And we’re not done.”