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Since June 25, 2018, the day 21-year-old sailor Brandon Caserta died by suicide on a helicopter flight deck, Patrick and Teri Caserta have done everything they could to bring justice to their son.

A Liberty High School graduate, Brandon was an aircrew aviation electrician for Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 in Norfolk, Virginia.

“They bullied and harassed Brandon; they tortured and messed with him on a daily basis,” said his father, Patrick, a retired Navy recruiter. “From the moment he arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, they treated him horribly.”

On July 28, 2020, U.S. Sen. Martha McSally introduced legislation in honor of Brandon. According to the Brandon Act, if signed into law, sailors could initiate an immediate referral in a highly confidential manner.

McSally said the Casertas have “every right to be withdrawn” because of the overwhelming grief of losing their son. McSally said it was important that Patrick and Teri turned their pain into advocacy in Brandon’s memory.

“This is an epidemic in our society. We’ve all been touched by this to include myself, people we know have loved ones who have taken their own lives,” McSally said. “I’m so proud of Patrick and Teri.”

Patrick and Teri have devoted their lives to exposing military bullying and hazing. They believe a combination of lack of Navy leadership and an out-of-control commander prompted Brandon to take his life.

According to the House Congressional Record, “Brandon was a 21-year-old United States Navy petty officer. He couldn’t get mental health help when he needed it, and as a result, he died from suicide on the flight line of his squadron in Norfolk, Virginia.”

Systemic problem

Since 2006, suicides in the Navy have more than doubled. In 2019, the Navy recorded 73 suicides at a rate of 21.8 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Fatal Injury Report.

McSally said that more needs to be done to address suicide prevention in the military. The military has unique pressures and challenges, but the government needs to do more for the men and women who are willing to sacrifice their lives for our freedoms, according to McSally.

“It’s a travesty people come home from combat, and they survive the enemy trying to take their life and then they take their own lives,” McSally said. “We’ve got to do more within the military, also in society.”

After Brandon’s death, a Navy investigation into his suicide uncovered widespread abuse within Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28. Brandon’s commanding officer was verbally abusive and created a hostile work environment, according to Navy investigators.

McSally expects President Donald Trump to sign the Brandon Act into law. McSally said she looks forward to working with Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) on additional mental health legislation for those in the military.

“The Brandon Act would allow struggling sailors like Brandon who are in very toxic circumstances, or just need help for other reasons, to be able to reach out and get the help they need,” McSally said.

A patriotic tribute

Brandon was a friendly person who was always willing to help out a friend, according to many former students at Peoria Frontier Elementary, Sunrise Mountain and Liberty High schools. Brandon treated everyone with honor, respect, patience and kindness, according to his closest friends.

Destini Mohn of Mesa said Brandon was a compassionate friend who will be missed by many. Mohn said Brandon would often text, call or surprise her by showing up at her house. She said Brandon had a way of figuring out exactly what to say. Mohn said Brandon never hid his emotions from her.

“When I felt like something is wrong, Brandon made sure I was OK,” Mohn said. “I felt comfortable talking to Brandon because I knew that there was no judgment. I knew that he wasn’t going to criticize me or tell me what I needed to do.”

Courtnie Hawks of Peoria said Brandon enjoyed listening to the rock band AC/DC and playing Guitar Hero. She said he also enjoyed eating chicken fingers and had a propensity for sugary sweets. She said they would spend countless hours at Brandon’s playing Guitar Hero.

“It took us months to beat the song ‘One’ by Metallica, and after we finally beat it, we were both ecstatic,” Hawks said. “Brandon had a heart of gold. When Brandon died, I lost one of my soulmates.”

Kaleb Anderson, of Peoria, said he met Brandon while attending a Sunrise Mountain High photography class. Anderson said Brandon was a true patriot who wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. For that reason, Anderson said he supported Brandon’s decision to enlist into the Navy and to become a SEAL.

“Brandon proved his unparalleled patriotism. He was willing to give up everything for his country,” Anderson said. “I really respected that.”

Teri and Patrick are committed to making sure their son did not die in vain and his legacy helps others.

“Brandon was such a good kid,” Patrick said.

Members of the military who are in crisis can reach out to the military crisis line at 1-800-273-8255. To be connected with a qualified Veterans Administration professional, press the number 1.