April 23, 2024

Leaders at Fort Cavazos in Texas held a “call to action” on Aug. 16 — a day to focus on mental health, suicide prevention, intervention and access to care and services — following the suicide deaths of three soldiers assigned to the post.

In the wake of the deaths, however, the parents who pushed for a new Defense Department policy that improves troops’ access to mental health care after their Navy sailor son died by suicide question why the Army is late in implementing the policy.

“[The Army has] a campaign, ‘people first,’ but clearly, that’s not working,” said Teri Caserta, mother of Brandon Caserta, who died in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2018. “Not having the Brandon Act implemented is completely irresponsible.”

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As part of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress passed the Brandon Act in late 2021, requiring the services to implement a policy that would allow service members to request a mental health appointment at any time and receive an immediate response.

The Defense Department issued the instruction related to the law on May 5 of this year, requiring the military services to draft and institute their Brandon Act policies within 45 days. With the deadline of June 19, the Navy and Marine Corps announced their policy July 11, followed by the Air Force on Aug. 7.

The Army has yet to issue its policy and did not provide a reason for the delay.

Instead, Army Public Affairs Officer Bryce Dubee said Tuesday that the service is crafting its instruction.

“The Army is working deliberately to finalize a new policy that will comply with the Brandon Act and will empower soldiers with additional avenues to seek help confidentially — for any reason, at any time and in any environment — with the goal of reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care,” Dubee wrote in an email to Military.com.

The Army issued a unified regulation earlier this month that codifies the service’s suicide prevention program, nearly three years late and to little fanfare. The regulation, which goes into effect Sept. 8, spells out the focus of the program and outlines the responsibilities Army leadership has in preventing suicides.

But it says nothing about what soldiers can do for themselves or to assist others who are in a mental health crisis or contemplating suicide, as was intended, nor does it include the Brandon Act or address Defense Department Instruction 6490.08 — the Pentagon policy that implemented the Brandon Act.

At least 255 active-duty, reserve and National Guard soldiers died by suicide in 2022. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, 49 active-duty soldiers died by suicide, up from 37 for the same time frame in 2022, according to Defense Department data.

While the circumstances that lead to suicide are complex, outreach, therapy and support are known to reduce suicidal thoughts and the risk that someone may harm themselves, thus the preventive focus on calling a crisis line, reaching out to friends or asking for a mental health evaluation.

“Not implementing the Brandon Act shows [the Army is] not serious about suicides and failing [its] soldiers,” said Patrick Caserta, a retired Navy senior chief petty officer and co-president of the Brandon Caserta Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that focuses on suicide prevention initiatives, training and education.

Brandon Caserta died at Naval Station Norfolk after he had been bullied by a supervisor, and his command knowingly did little to stop the abuse while actively working to prevent him from transferring to another unit. His parents lobbied Congress to pass a law in late 2021 requiring the services to allow troops to request a mental health appointment at any time and receive an immediate response.

The Casertas said they have met with the secretaries of the Navy and Air Force but have yet to have discussions with Army Secretary Christine Wormuth about the law and the service’s failure to implement it. They said the Army not only needs to publish its policy, it must publicize it to ensure that soldiers are aware of their right to a speedy evaluation.

“Everyone knows this is not a perfect fix. It’s just a step in the right direction to reintroduce the programs the DoD has to help these people. They invoke the Brandon Act and then they can pick the program that addresses whatever problem they need addressed,” Patrick Caserta said in an interview with Military.com.

Dubee said the Army will continue to encourage soldiers to seek mental health treatment, which it considers a “sign of strength and resilience.”

“The Army’s greatest strength is our people, and we are committed to their well-being,” Dubee said.

If you are a service member or veteran who needs help, it is available 24/7 at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org, or through the online chat function at www.veteranscrisisline.net.

– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.

Related: ‘Brandon Act’ Named for Sailor Who Died by Suicide Gains New Supporters in Congress

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