Army accused of ignoring law and withholding information after Fort Cavazos suicides
Stars and Stripes August 29, 2023
An organization that led the passage of a mental health bill to help prevent military suicides is accusing the Army of failing to implement the legislation and stonewalling information about a recent rash of suicides at Fort Cavazos in Texas.
The Brandon Caserta Foundation, led by the parents of a Navy sailor who died by suicide in 2018, said the Army has refused to be open and transparent about suicides among its ranks, including the deaths of three soldiers this month at the base formerly known as Fort Hood.
“The Army public relations always says, ‘One suicide is too many.’ There were three in two weeks, and you are silent,” Teri Caserta, president of the foundation, said in a statement specifically addressing Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “Not having the Brandon Act implemented is completely irresponsible. These deaths are on you both.”
President Joe Biden signed the Brandon Act into law in 2021, allowing service members to confidentially and quickly request a mental health evaluation outside the chain of command. The law aims to remove the stigma around seeking help and is named after Brandon Caserta, a 21-year-old naval squadron flight electrician who died by suicide at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., after years of alleged bullying.
The Defense Department in May announced a two-step process for implementing the Brandon Act. The first phase tasked military departments with establishing procedures for implementing the policy within 45 days for active-duty service members while phase two will establish procedures for all other service members.
Teri and Patrick Caserta, Brandon Caserta’s parents and co-authors of the legislation, said only the Army has not complied with the law.
“Teri and I have spent the last five years writing and lobbying for the Brandon Act. Nothing has changed with the Army. The Navy, Marine, and Air Force secretaries have met with us, and the Army continuously hides,” Patrick Caserta said. “The Army is a disaster when it comes to their reputation, and they wonder why it is so hard to recruit.”
Bryce Dubee, a spokesman for the Army, said Tuesday that the service is “working deliberately” to finalize a new policy that will comply with the Brandon Act.
“The Army's greatest strength is our people, and we are committed to their well-being,” Dubee said. “As we address the complex causes of suicide and other harmful behaviors, we will continue to encourage soldiers to seek mental health treatment as a sign of strength and resilience.”
The Army is expected to miss its recruiting goal by 10,000 this year and as the largest force in the U.S. military, has the highest suicide rate of the service branches.
There were 135 suicides among active-duty soldiers last year, a decrease compared to 175 suicides per year in 2021 and 2020, according to the Defense Suicide Prevention Office. Almost 50 soldiers have died by suicide in the first three months of 2023 compared to 37 soldiers in the first three months of 2022.
The Casertas are demanding to meet with Wormuth at Fort Cavazos, the site of the latest spate of suicides.
“We either go to Fort Cavazos and meet you, or we go to Capitol Hill to brief them on your behavior and refusal to implement and obey the Brandon Act, which is the law of the land,” Patrick Caserta said.
Dubee, the Army spokesman, said Wormuth would be happy to meet with the Brandon Caserta Foundation.
"Secretary Wormuth deeply respects the Caserta family’s commitment to improving service members’ access to mental health resources," he said.
Fort Cavazos acknowledged last week the deaths of three soldiers, stating “all initial indicators point to these tragedies being suicides.” An official said the base will not comment further on the details of the cases until an investigation is completed.
“We urge everyone to respect the privacy and dignity of the families and friends of the deceased during this difficult time,” said Lt. Col. Tania Donovan, the public affairs director for III Armored Corps, which is headquartered at Fort Cavazos.
The base held a “Call-to-Action” day on Aug. 16 in response to the suicides to give soldiers and leaders time to discuss mental health and suicide prevention. The base, America’s largest active-duty armored military post, has also stepped up efforts to familiarize soldiers with mental health resources.
The Casertas said the lack of information about the deaths at Fort Cavazos and the Army's failure to implement the Brandon Act exposed the service's shortcomings in combating suicides.
“Not implementing The Brandon Act shows you are not serious about suicides and failing your soldiers,” Patrick Caserta said. “The Army needs to be transparent to their soldiers, the citizens of the United States, and above all, the Army needs to follow the law.”