The Pentagon is moving forward with a series of changes to mental health care access required by a 2021 law that was passed in memory of a sailor who killed himself in 2018 after receiving little help from leaders.
Named after Brandon Caserta, the Brandon Act will be adopted at a ceremony at the Pentagon Friday, according to defense officials as well as Caserta's parents. It will likely be a few more weeks before it goes into full effect with every service branch.
"It should not have taken this long for something that can save lives, but we are very excited that the DoD is finally going to implement the Brandon Act," Caserta's mother, Teri Caserta, told Military.com in a phone interview Thursday. "This implementation of the Brandon Act not only continues Brandon's legacy, but it's going to save lives."
Caserta was a 21-year-old aircrew aviation electrician's mate. Stationed at Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 in Norfolk, Virginia, Caserta was tormented by a petty officer, and a command investigation into his death found that his unit not only did little to stop the abuse but also actively prevented him from transferring out.
After his death, Caserta's parents made it their life's work to help other service members avoid their son's fate and have become fixtures on Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers for reforms.
However, despite the fact that the law was passed in 2021, it hasn't gone into effect even as the Navy continued to suffer through several suicide clusters.
In April, 2022 Military.com first revealed that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which is undergoing a massive, years-long overhaul at the Newport News Shipyard in Virginia, had a spate of suicides that went back to at least November 2019. Then in December, it was revealed that nearby the Navy's Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center had four suicides in about a month's time. At the same time, on the west coast, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was in the midst of a suicide cluster that would claim three sailors by January 2023.
The delay also drew the attention of lawmakers like Congressman Seth Moulton, D-Mass., the bill's author, as well as Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who represents sailors stationed at Norfolk and Newport News.
In December, Moulton said that he "was assured many months ago that the law was well on its way to being implemented" in a press release.
"It is beyond me why this policy has yet to be implemented," the congressman said at the time.
Patrick Caserta, Brandon's father, said he was told the holdup was over the inclusion of the reserves and the National Guard in the Brandon Act's protections.
"That created a complex problem for them to figure out how to deal with that part of it to get them the help that they need," he said.
Now, a Pentagon spokesperson says that Gilbert Cisneros, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, will sign the guidance ordering the services to put the new rules into effect alongside the Casertas on Friday.
The event was not announced by the Pentagon ahead of time, and a spokeswoman for the office of the Secretary of Defense said that the media would not be able to attend.
Service members who are interested in taking advantage of the ability to request a mental health evaluation for any reason or the extra confidentiality the act will offer them will have to keep waiting, however.
The Brandon Act will not fully go into effect until each service issues its own, service-specific guidance. They have several weeks to draft those policy documents.
For the Casertas, though, the signing is just the beginning.
"Accountability needs to be in there, and so does educating," Patrick said before noting that his hope is that "the accountability [will] prevent future deaths by holding accountable several chains of commands.
"We have programs that we've designed that we want to implement, to educate our military on what's available or what they can do," he added.
The pair say that despite the delays and struggles to get the law that bears their son's name implemented, they don't see leadership at the Pentagon as adversaries. Instead, they view them as partners in helping to end suicides in the military.
"It was his dying wish to have this done for his fellow service members,” Patrick said. "He'll continue to save lives forever."
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.