On June 25, 2018, Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta threw himself into a helicopter’s spinning tail rotor. Navy investigators soon found that Caserta, who had dropped out of SEAL training after breaking his leg, had been bullied by a supervisor and had been unable to find mental health resources.

Now the Defense Department has implemented the Brandon Act, named for Caserta, which will allow service members to request their commanding officers or supervisors refer them for a mental health evaluation.

Caserta’s mother Teri and father Patrick were both present on May 5 when Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros, Jr. signed the policy implementing the Brandon Act.

Teri Caserta recently told Task & Purpose that it is hard for her family to understand why it has taken so long for Congress and the Defense Department to take action on making sure troops have access to the care they need.

“We are extremely happy that it’s finally being implemented,” Teri Caserta said. “It’s just been a very hard and long journey. We are very happy that it is now an actual thing that can save our service members’ lives.”

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Caserta’s suicide is believed to be related to the toxic command climate he faced while he was assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 in Norfolk, Virginia, first reported. He was constantly bullied by a supervisor for breaking his leg while trying to complete Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/S, and at the time of his death he faced spending another year as an Aviation Electrician, a job that he reportedly despised.

Mental Health photo
Teri and Patrick Caserta with Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros, Jr., who signed a policy to implement the Brandon Act on May 5, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Teri Caserta) 

The Brandon Act is meant to offer a lifeline to troops who also feel trapped in a toxic environment. It will be implemented in two phases. First, the military departments are required to establish a process within the next 45 days by which active-duty service members can request a referral for a mental health evaluation, defense officials said.

“What this means is – supervisors will have to refer requestors for mental health evaluation upon request,” said Navy Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Defense Department spokeswoman. “They cannot refuse. The advantage to requesting through one’s supervisor to make the referral is that service members can use duty time to make and attend the appointment.”

The Defense Health Agency will work closely with the military departments to implement training for commanding officers and supervisors about how to make sure that requests for mental health evaluations are handled quickly and appropriately, according to the agency’s website.

“Service members can initiate a referral process for mental health evaluation through a commanding officer or supervisor on any basis, at any time, and in any environment,” Schwegman said. “Commanding officers or supervisors must refer the service member to a mental health provider for a mental health evaluation as soon as practicable.”

No timeline has been set for the second phase of implementing the Brandon Act: establishing referral processes for National Guard and Reserve service members.

Mental Health photo
Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Caserta died on June 25, 2018. (U.S. Navy photo)

“The implementation of any new policy can be complex,” the Defense Health Agency’s website says. “The Department is committed to diligently and thoughtfully working through the challenges associated with the development of procedures to ensure prompt referral for mental health evaluations for individuals not on active duty who do not generally receive care through [Department of Defense].”

The Brandon Act also includes measures aimed at educating service members how to get help for other issues, including substance abuse, sexual harassment, bullying, and hazing, Patrick Caserta said.

The Brandon Act legislation was part of the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law on Dec. 27, 2021. But it has taken more than 16 months for the Defense Department to implement it as policy.

Caserta said it has been a long journey for his family, and they had to overcome several roadblocks along the way, but they were determined to make sure that no other parent would have to endure the suffering they have gone through.

Ultimately, Patrick Caserta believes that his son’s legacy is that no other service members will feel that their only option is to take their own lives.

“Our son’s legacy is saving lives,” Patrick Caserta said. “His death is going to save many.”

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