Lawmakers reintroduced a bill Wednesday that would make it easier for service members to seek mental health care without fear of retaliation or worry about their careers.
Marine Corps veteran Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Navy veteran Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., are among the sponsors of the Brandon Act: legislation that would give service members a safe phrase that would trigger an automatic referral to a mental health specialist for evaluation.
The bill is named for Navy Aircrew Aviation Electrician's Mate Striker Brandon Caserta, who died three years ago this month by suicide in Norfolk, Virginia. Military.com first reported on the tragedy in 2019. According to Navy records and personal correspondence, Caserta was being bullied by one of his supervisors and was despondent over his circumstances.
Moulton introduced similar legislation last year. But while it was incorporated into the House's version of the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill, it was removed during deliberations of the final law.
At a press conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Moulton said the Brandon Act would empower service members to manage their mental health during a crisis.
"They would simply have to say, 'I have a Brandon Act concern.' If this were the case for Brandon, he would still be alive today," Moulton said.
"The real strength of our military, the thing that matters most and the thing that sets us apart ... is our people," added Kelly. "This means continued success depends on supporting our people, giving them the tools they need to do their jobs and having their backs ... especially when it matters the most. Tragically, this system failed Brandon."
The proposal would trigger a referral for mental health treatment "as soon as practicable" once a service member mentioned that they needed help under the Brandon Act. The help would be provided confidentially, similar to the restricted reporting option available to military victims of sexual assault.
During a House Armed Services hearing on the Air Force budget Wednesday, Moulton said he is under "no delusions that the Brandon Act would solve all the military's suicide problems," but he called it "a step in the right direction."
He pressed Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown for his support and added that the Defense Department does not favor the proposal.
Brown said he would support the idea or similar measures.
Caserta, who was from Arizona, was assigned his rating after breaking his leg during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School in 2016. He was then sent to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 in Norfolk, Virginia, where he worked under a lead petty officer known to be verbally abusive to sailors.
Struggling in his assigned rating and facing disciplinary action within his command, Caserta left notes for his parents and friends before died by suicide on the flight line on June 25, 2018.
His death was one of 325 suicides among active duty personnel that year, including 68 in the U.S. Navy. The suicide rate has steadily increased in the armed forces in the past four years: in 2019, the rate was 25.9 per 100,000 active duty members, up from 24.9 per 100,000 in 2018 and 21.9 per 100,000 in 2017.
Since Brandon's death, his parents Teri and Patrick have fought for legislation that would protect service members who feel abandoned by their leaders and need help.
On Wednesday, they urged all Americans to support the Brandon Act -- a "verbal 911" that may prevent similar tragedies.
"People need help. They deserve to get it," said Patrick Caserta.
If you or someone you know needs help, the Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.