The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have apparently become the first U.S. service branches to implement the Brandon Act, a set of policies that provide service members with a confidential evaluation and greater access to mental health care.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro signed the instruction Monday, according to the parents of Brandon Castera and a USNI News report Tuesday. President Joe Biden signed the measure into law in December 2021 as part of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
The act is named for Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Castera, an aviation electrician. Castera, 21, died by suicide June 25, 2018, at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. A command investigation found that a combative and toxic leadership contributed to his death.
Brandon’s parents, Teri and Patrick Castera, two months after his death started a push to get the measure passed, an uphill battle of phone calls and trips to the Pentagon, Patrick Castera told Stars and Stripes by phone Wednesday.
“He will forever be saving lives and his death meant something, as tragic as it was,” his father said. “I know he’s smiling at us. He had a smile and made everyone want to smile.”
The Brandon Act allows service members to seek confidential help for any mental health issue, at any time, in any environment, thereby reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment.
The act requires a mental health evaluation as soon as service members self-report, according to thebrandonact.org, a website the Casteras created. The Brandon Act “will also allow Americans serving in uniform to seek help confidentially and, if necessary, outside of the chain of command,” according to the website.
The measure also mandates annual training from the Department of Defense on recognizing members who may need a mental health evaluation.
Under the law, commanders and supervisors must ensure that service members understand the procedure for requesting a mental health evaluation, ensure they are referred as soon as possible, maintain privacy protections and not seek the results of evaluations, among other requirements.
Del Toro called the Casteras as they drove to their Peoria, Ariz., home with word that he had signed the order to implement the act, Patrick Castera said. Del Toro read the policy over the phone and said he was signing it on the spot, Castera said. The secretary later sent a photo of the signed document to the Castera family.
“It brought tears to our eyes knowing that he actually signed the act into Navy and Marine law,” Teri Castera said. “It was thrilling.”
The Casteras posted the news Tuesday on The Brandon Act Facebook page, where a flood of comments followed.
“This is amazing,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Emilie Nielson, a gunner’s mate, wrote. “I can’t tell you how many hoops I had to jump through to seek help for my own mental health through the military. This is a huge step in the right direction.”
Two months ago, Nielson, of Albuquerque, N.M., was stationed on the amphibious transport dock USS Mesa Verde, when she experienced difficulty getting help for anxiety and depression, she told Stars and Stripes via Facebook Messenger on Wednesday.
“When I was on the ship, the big issue I faced was getting an appointment,” Nielson said. The process involved getting screened by medical specialists who set up a doctor appointment for a referral to a therapist, she said. The process could take weeks or months.
“There’s a saying the Navy has: ‘Ship, shipmate, self,’ which to me is completely backwards,” Nielson said. “If I can’t take care of myself first, how can I take care of my shipmates or my ship? When I told my command about my view on the saying I received some pushback.”
The Navy recorded 72 suicides in fiscal 2022, according to the Defense Department.
“This is to erase the stigma out there about mental health, it is OK to seek help,” Patrick Castera said.