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Brandon Caserta was 21 when he died by suicide at Norfolk Naval Station in 2018.
Brandon Caserta was 21 when he died by suicide at Norfolk Naval Station in 2018. (Caserta family)

WASHINGTON — A measure to give service members easier and more confidential access to mental health care by allowing them to use a safe word was included in the annual defense spending bill that now awaits President Joe Biden’s signature. 

The bill, titled the Brandon Act, was named for Brandon Caserta, a 21-year-old sailor who died by suicide June 25, 2018, at Naval Station Norfolk, Va.

A command investigation into Caserta’s death determined that belligerent and brash leadership of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 contributed to his decision to end his own life. He felt alone, stuck and afraid of retaliation, his parents said.  

After a failed attempt to pass legislation last year, the Brandon Act was successfully added to the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. Congress approved the bill last week, and Biden is expected to sign it. 

“We cannot be happier that the Brandon Act is in the NDAA,” his parents, Teri and Patrick Caserta said. “We cannot bring Brandon back, but the Brandon Act will honor our son in the way he would want. This is a military service member victory.” 

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., led the measure in the House, and Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., introduced the bill in the Senate. The goal of the bill is to create a pathway for service members to seek mental health evaluations in confidence, without disclosing to their command. 

“America’s service members shouldn’t have to settle for a broken system that’s incapable of providing them with the mental health support they need, and today’s vote means they no longer have to,” Moulton said Dec. 15, when the Senate approved the NDAA.  

Under the measure, the only information that service members would have to tell their supervisor or commanding officer is that they had a “Brandon Act concern” to receive a referral for mental health care, Moulton said.

Patrick and Teri Caserta, have pushed for the change since their son died three years ago. They believe the change will help reduce the perceived barriers of self-reporting for mental health evaluations and ease service members’ path to care.  

Brandon Caserta was one of 325 active-duty service members who died by suicide in 2018, and one of 68 sailors, according to military data. Suicides have increased since then. In 2019, 348 active-duty service members died by suicide, and in 2020 that number rose to 377. The military saw a significant spike in suicides during the end of 2020.  

“The Brandon Act will save service member’s lives and it will give them the mental health care they rightfully deserve without retaliation,” the Casertas said. 

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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