Have you heard of the Brandon Act? This legislation “modifies the regulatory requirement for the referral of a member of the Armed Forces for a mental health evaluation. It requires that commanding officers or supervisors make referrals as soon as practicable and that the referral process protect the confidentiality of the member.”
The Brandon Act is named for Brandon Caserta, a Navy Aircrew Aviation Electrician’s Mate Striker, who died by suicide on June 25, 2018, at age 21. His parents, Patrick and Teri, sought to create this bill in the hopes of preventing suicides in the Armed Forces and holding people accountable for contributing to suicidal ideation.
About Brandon Caserta
While serving at Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) Squadron 28 in Norfolk, Virginia, one of Brandon’s supervisors, known for being verbally abusive to sailors, relentlessly bullied and hazed him. No one in Brandon’s chain of command heeded his pleas for help, and he felt he had nowhere else to turn without facing negative career consequences. Brandon’s fears were not unwarranted, considering he experienced retaliation after his father attempted to call the command expressing concern for Brandon’s welfare.
The bullying eventually became too much for Brandon. After leaving notes for his parents and friends, he ripped off his helmet and ran into the rotating rear tail rotor of a Seahawk helicopter in full view of his command and the flight line. No one attempted to stop him, run to his aid, or administer medical attention after what he did. In fact, they fled in the opposite direction, much to Brandon’s parents’ horror when they found out.
About Brandon’s Abuser
It was no secret that Brandon’s supervisor was cruel to his subordinates. He knew which vulnerable people to pick on, including Brandon, and he didn’t hold back. His abuse of power has been described as “nauseating,” yet only meager steps were ever taken to curb his behavior.
Brandon’s supervisor was counseled in writing following multiple complaints about his unprofessionalism and was directed to apologize to his sailors. He was also temporarily removed from the command but was reinstated just two weeks later. Immediately after his reinstatement, he was verbally counseled for reports of vulgarity and sexism. Yet, after all this, he was allowed to remain in command.
To this day, Brandon’s abuser has not been charged. In fact, he still serves at HSC-28 in Norfolk. His name has not been released to the public.
About the Brandon Act
The Brandon Act aims to protect service members who feel abandoned by their leaders and need help. It grants access to counseling for depression and other mental health struggles that may develop in response to bullying, sexual harassment, mental abuse, and other issues.
Once the military fully enacts this law, a service member in crisis can simply say, “I have a Brandon Act concern,” and this “verbal 911” will trigger a referral by their commanding officer or supervisor for a mental health evaluation. Any help the service member receives is expedited and provided confidentially, similar to the restricted reporting option available to military victims of sexual assault. In short, the Brandon Act empowers service members to manage their mental health during a crisis without fear of retaliation.
The Slow Implementation of the Brandon Act
Brandon’s death in 2018 was one of 325 suicides among active duty personnel that year, including 68 in the Navy. The annual suicide rate has only increased since then. Despite this, the U.S. military has not yet enacted the Brandon Act.
The bill was introduced to Congress in June 2021, and President Joe Biden signed it into law in December. Still, as of summer 2022, Navy officials are still “establishing implementation policy” for it.
The delay has baffled military mental health experienceds. They argue that everything about the Brandon Act—allowing service members to self-report mental health issues, expediting evaluations, and ensuring a confidential channel to receive help—are critical reforms needed to reduce suicide rates in the services.
Patrick and Teri Caserta believe the Brandon Act could have saved lives already if it had been implemented promptly. Every time news of another suicide reaches them, Brandon’s parents are heartbroken all over again. They believe once the Navy fully implements this relatively straightforward change, “it will be different overnight.” In the meantime, the Navy insists that sailors have other options to receive help rather than going through their chain of command, such as calling a crisis hotline or speaking to Navy chaplains.
Despite Patrick and Teri’s assertion that the Brandon Act is straightforward, unexpected complications have slowed implementation. For instance, the new law may require changing how medical records are created, maintained, and evaluated. The military must also carry out an awareness campaign once the policy takes full effect. In the end, military law experienceds agree that it’s reasonable for the implementation process to take at least eight months.
Still, the reality is people are losing their lives, and the faster the Brandon Act can provide a way out for desperate service members, the more lives can be saved.
Get the Help You Need
If you or someone you know is having a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741, or visit the Speaking of Suicide website for additional resources. Service members and veterans can also call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK.
Then, if you’re facing disciplinary action, a mental health discharge, or other retaliation for a mental health issue, contact a military defense lawyer. Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, can defend your case and help you seek justice. We represent service members in all branches of the military stationed worldwide. After over a decade as a defense attorney and prior experience as an Army JAG officer, Mr. Jordan has the knowledge and tools necessary to defend you.