Former Marine and Iraq War veteran Rep. Seth Moulton introduced a bill in Congress on Thursday that would make it easier for service members to seek mental health care outside their chain of command.
The Brandon Act, named for Navy Aircrew Aviation Electrician's Mate Striker Brandon Caserta, who died by suicide two years ago this week in Norfolk, Virginia, would give service members a safe word that would trigger an immediate automatic referral to a mental health specialist for evaluation.
According to the bill, H.R. 7368, if a service member uttered a selected phrase, it would trigger a referral "as soon as practicable" and in a confidential manner similar to the restricted reporting option available to victims of sexual assault in the U.S. military.
Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who has spoken openly about his own struggles with post-traumatic stress, said the bill is needed to assist troops, especially those being bullied or hazed in their units.
"This bill will ensure that our service members can get help and have no fear of retaliation for doing so," he said in a release.
Caserta, an Arizona native, was assigned his rating and sent to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 after breaking his leg during Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School in 2016.
At the unit, he worked under a lead petty officer who was known to be abusive, who berated, cursed and mocked young sailors under his command. Struggling in his assigned rating and facing disciplinary action within his command, Caserta left notes for his parents and friends before killing himself June 25, 2018.
He was 21.
Caserta's experience was first documented in an award-winning article on Military.com. Since his death, parents Teri and Patrick have fought for legislation that would protect service members who feel abandoned by their leaders and need help.
The behavior of Caserta's LPO was well-known within the command: He had previously been counseled while serving as a detachment LPO for "intolerable and unprofessional" behavior toward subordinates, according to counseling sheets, and later was relieved when he didn't change.
Once back at the squadron, he was sent to anger management classes and reassigned as LPO under a new chief petty officer "as a leadership challenge." But the abusive behavior continued.
He was reassigned to a different unit after he made derogatory comments about Caserta after his death.
Patrick and Teri Caserta have said that their son saw few options for getting medical care, including mental health services, given that his chain of command was aware of the bullying behavior and also were allegedly engaged in harassing their son.
The proposed legislation, they said, would continue their son's efforts to serve his country and always be there for his peers.
"Brandon has always helped everyone he could." Teri and Patrick Caserta said in a release. "Brandon did not die in vain, and his legacy for helping others will continue long after his death when the Brandon Act is passed."
A spokesman for Moulton's office said Friday that the bill has been offered as an amendment to the House's defense authorization bill, which will be considered for a vote by the House Armed Services Committee next week.
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.