More than a year after Congress signed into law a bill meant to help service members struggling with severe mental health problems, the Pentagon still has not issued guidance to the services to put the bill into practice.
“We hear the rhetoric all the time, but we need action,” said Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, who co-sponsored the Brandon Act. “They’ve been sitting on their hands and more Americans die every day as a result.”
The Brandon Act is named after Brandon Caserta, a young sailor whose parents described him as a “very charismatic and upbeat young man” who “always helped everyone he could.”
But in June 2018, Caserta took his own life at Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia. In letters to his parents and to his friends, Caserta said he was constantly hazed and bullied in the Navy, and he saw no other way out.
He notified his commanders he was depressed but they took no action and showed no sympathy, according to Brandon Caserta’s father Patrick, who served 22 years in the Navy.
“They said, ‘Suck it up and get back to work,’” Patrick Caserta told CNN. “You can’t have that. That’s now how you deal with it.”
The Brandon Act was included in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. If a service member seeks mental health services or self-reports a problem, the Act requires a mental health evaluation. It also allows service members to seek confidential help outside the chain of command.
“His letter led us to this,” Teri Caserta, Brandon’s mother, told CNN. “He wanted us to do something about suicide and the toxicity that happens in our military system. That’s why we created the Brandon Act.”
But 15 months after it was passed the law has not been implemented and the Defense Department hasn’t followed through its requirements and issued guidance for the military. Therefore, the mental health evaluations and the confidential reporting required by the law are still not available to service members.
In 2021, the latest year for which numbers are available, 519 US service members died by suicide. Though a slight decrease from the previous year’s 582 suicides, the trend over the last decade and more has been increasing.
Last year, three sailors assigned to the USS George Washington died by suicide in a single week. Then, in December, four sailors at a faculty in Norfolk, Virginia died by suicide in one month.
“DoD needs to do this,” said Moulton bluntly. “Active-duty service members don’t have a way to report mental health issues outside the chain of command because DoD just hasn’t gotten out of their own bureaucratic way to implement this act. It just requires the Secretary of Defense and his department to do their job.”
The issue of military suicides has plagued the Department of Defense for decades. According to a 2021 study from Brown University, more than 30,000 active-duty personnel and veterans died by suicide during the 20-year War on Terror, which is more than four times the number of combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
The Defense Department is currently working on implementing the requirements of the Brandon Act, according to a spokesperson.
“Due to the complexity of the requirement, publication of policy to establish self-initiated referrals for a mental health evaluation via a commander or supervisor is currently in development,” said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, who stressed that there are mental health services available for members of the military seeking help or an evaluation.
“A full continuum of mental health and wellness support is available worldwide to ensure access to care,” Schwegman said, including specialty and primary care clinics, as well as virtual health platforms.
Last month, the Pentagon’s Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review Committee unveiled 127 recommendations to combat military suicides, including a waiting period for gun purchases on base and raising the minimum age for buying firearms on base.
The Pentagon said it would review the recommendations closely.
“Even one suicide is too many, and we will exhaust every effort to promote the wellness, health, and morale of our total force,” said Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder after the release of the recommendations.
But for the parents of Brandon Caserta, the committee’s recommendations and the Pentagon’s promises to review its report smack of more waiting and less action.
“As painful as this has been, had someone else done this before us, our son would still be alive,” said Patrick Caserta. “We want to be that person that saves lives later on.”
Editor’s Note: If you or a loved one have contemplated suicide, call The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to connect with a trained counselor.