The Defense Department in September released a first-of-its-kind study that estimates the risk of sexual assault service members face at different installations. The estimates were based on more than 170,000 survey responses service members completed in 2014 on whether they had personally experienced sexual assault. The data has limitations, but military officials will use it to help identify high-risk areas and see what additional steps can be taken to increase safety for men and women assigned there. The data is searchable by service, risk, location and estimated number of assaults.
Service members can use the chart below, drawn from the detailed data tables published by RAND, to search for individual military installations and ships.
The study conducted by the Rand Corporation includes two key measurements:
Overall Sexual Assault Risk: This number indicates the average expected risk for the average men and women at the individual installations. For example, a 10 percent risk for sexual assault means it’s likely that one in 10 service members at that installation or ship will experience a sexual assault during the year. This number is affected by many factors, such as the age, rank or gender of the personnel assigned there. For example, installations with many younger, unmarried and junior ranking personnel (all risk factors) tend to have higher risk solely based on those demographic risk factors.
Installation-specific risk: This number measures the risk for sexual assault that controls for all those personal factors and aims to more directly answer the question: Are individuals more at risk for a sexual assault here than elsewhere? This installation-specific risk may be associated with installation characteristics such as command climate, the community outside the gates of the installation, or other factors. A positive number indicates service members at that installation face an elevated risk for sexual assault, and a negative number indicates the risk there is lower than expected for a base of that size and demographic. For example, an installation with an installation-specific risk of 1 percent (or -1 percent) means that troops at that location are one percent more likely (or less likely) to experience a sexual assault compared to the average for a base of that size and demographic. To calculate installation-specific risk, RAND employed a number of analytical tools and computer models to create its best estimate on the probability a service member may face sexual assault at that location. The percentages reported are RAND’s best estimate based on its analysis of the 2014 survey data.
Sexual assaults by service, gender and location
(Click Source to view charts)
Men and women assigned to Navy ships at sea are far more likely to be sexually assaulted than service members at bases elsewhere across the force, according to a new Defense Department report.
Across the services, the safest places to work were at the Pentagon or other national capital region headquarters buildings, according to the report.
The Pentagon released the data on Friday as part of a much-anticipated report, that for the first time looks at the likelihood of sexual assault on a military installation or ship and ranks them by service.
The rankings were commissioned by the Defense Department and aim to help military officials to better identify the risk factors for sexual assault and how to most effectively deploy prevention and response efforts.
It is based on 2014 data that was gathered through more than 170,000 surveys of active-duty service members collected by the RAND Corporation. Because of the five-year time lag, defense officials said the rankings do not reflect what the most dangerous bases are today. The study faced other limitations too, such as that assaults reported that were linked to a base could have occurred off-base or off-ship, such as while on liberty or leave. But the information is still jarring:
The risk for sexual assault was highest for men and women aboard the Navy’s ships. For men, “all but one of Navy men’s highest-risk installations are ships or clusters of ships, including five aircraft carriers." For women, of the 15 installations with highest risk for women, “13 are ships or clusters of ships, including eight of the ten aircraft carriers.”
In one stunning example, RAND found that “on one of these ships, we estimate that close to one in every 25 men was sexually assaulted in FY 2014.”
But RAND won’t name the ship, saying it was trying to respect the anonymity of the respondents. In the survey, RAND eliminated ships and bases with fewer than 50 survey responses, or with ship or base populations of less than 100 personnel.
For Navy women, ships were particularly dangerous, according to the report.
“Our model estimates that more than 10 percent of all women experienced a sexual assault at each of these high-risk installations over a one-year period, and more than 15 percent of all women were assaulted at two of them,” the report found.
For both men and women, Navy ships assigned to the FPO code 96671 — which based on Navy data includes cruisers Champlain and Lake Erie, submarines Louisiana and Louisville, and destroyer William P. Lawrence — “are associated with risk more than 100 percent greater than the average installation-specific risk in the Navy," RAND found.
Navy officials did not receive an advanced copy of the RAND report but told Military Times that they look forward to working with the think tank on future surveys.
“We are aware of the 2016 RAND Military Workplace Study Survey, and we value the approaches that RAND takes to cutting edge research," the officials said in a written statement emailed to Military Times.
"The Navy has further engaged with RAND to help us take a closer look at the conclusions of this report by conducting follow-on projects to provide more actionable information about where sexual assault risk is highest and lowest in the Navy.
“This information will be vital to us in determining where and how to target training, prevention and response resources. We take sexual assault seriously and specifically want to understand the ‘why’ presented by the data. Identifying protective and risk factors is essential to mitigating the risk of sexual assault for our sailors.”
Fort Drum in upstate New York was one of the most dangerous places for both Army men and women in terms of risk of sexual assault.
For Army women, the top five locations in terms of risk of sexual assault included Fort Huachuca, Arizona; Osan Air Base, Korea; Fort Drum; Okinawa, Japan; and Fort Riley, Kansas.
For men, the top five locations with the highest risk were located in Italy; at Fort Myer, Virginia; Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Drum; and Rose Barracks, Germany.
“While the lowest-risk installations for men are dominated by small, command or support installations, the highest-risk list includes many installations with a more prominent combat unit presence,” the study found.
For the Army, a cross section of the top 15 most dangerous bases for men and women showed that "almost half of these highest-risk installations are identical,” the study found, suggesting that location or culture at those locations could be a contributing factor that could be addressed in further study, said Nate Galbreath, director of DoD’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Office.
“The Army remains fully committed to reducing sexual assault and sexual harassment in its ranks,” the Army said in a statement to Military Times. “RAND’s risk estimates, which are based on survey data from over four years ago, may help focus ongoing efforts to combat these harmful behaviors. While prevalence rates of sexual assault among the force have declined, the Army continues to integrate and update prevention programs.”
Undergraduate pilot training bases were among the most dangerous places for both Air Force men and women for the risk for sexual assault, the report found.
For women, the top five installations in terms of risk were Vance Air Force Base, Okla.; Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas; Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma; Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi; and Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas.
For men, the top five installations in terms of risk of sexual assault were Altus Air Force Base; Laughlin Air Force Base; Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington D.C.' Luke Air Force Base, Arizona; and Columbus Air Force Base.
Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, in California, was one of the top five most dangerous places for male and female Marines for risk of sexual assault, the report found.
Responses for male Marines showed that the other most risky locations to be assigned included Japan, Korea, and Afghanistan.
For female Marines, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, MCAS Beaufort, MCAS New River and USMC Mobile, 3rd Marine Logistics Group were reported to have the highest risk of sexual assault.
In a statement, the Marines said more research is needed to understand whether increased risk is really tied to an installation.
“The RAND study documented differences in sexual assault risk across installations; the reasons for the variations in the levels of risk is not highlighted in this report,” said Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Craig Thomas. “There are many possible causes for differences, such as command climate, alcohol availability and price, crime rates in the surrounding civilian communities, or the transitory presence of one or more sexual offenders. Although the current study cannot identify the relationship between risk factors and risk estimates, additional research may help answer these questions.”
Working to reduce risk
Galbreath said that now that DoD has the data, it will be able to look for installations where additional steps can be taken to reduce the risk of sexual assault. For example, around 2015, at Great Lakes Naval Base near Chicago, DoD noticed a spike in sexual assault reports and decided to take a closer look.
“What the Navy found out is that, locally there, on the weekends, all of the recruits were going off base and having hotel parties. And a lot of these hotel parties involved alcohol. And a lot of those situations ended up with sailors getting sexually assaulted,” Galbreath said.
The Navy got together with area hotel owners, Galbreath said, and told them, “If you have a bunch of sailors having a party, give us a call, we’ll be there, we’ll break it up we’ll haul everybody back to base.”
With that, and training initiatives, Galbreath said, the numbers started to improve.
“Sexual assault began to fall,” Galbreath said. "So that’s the kind of local work [that can reduce risk of attack]. But there’s 270 places that we have to do that at.”
The next survey is currently getting sent to respondents now, Galbreath said, and the results should be available in April.
More and more active US service members are reporting sexual abuse. So are Veterans—but a recent report found that at least 1,300 sexual trauma claims may have been wrongly declined by the Department of Veteran Affairs.
In 2017 alone, more than 5,200 active members (pdf, p.9) of the US military reported they’d been sexually abused during service. This is a 10% increase over the previous year, likely linked to increased attention and legislative action in recent years. Still, the cases that get reported are only a small percentage (pdf, p.11) of total incidents, according to the Department of Defense’s estimates.
Veterans were even more likely to come forward with stories of sexual abuse or harassment in the military. Over the past three years, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says it processed about 12,000 claims annually for disability compensation and other benefits due to sexual trauma. Seventy-nine percent of claimants were women.
Since 2011, VA guidelines have supported victims in their process of coming forward. The agency applies a so-called “liberal approach” to to the kind of evidence of abuse it accepts: For instance, it looks for circumstantial “markers” that would corroborate the survivor’s claim, such as changes in behavior, substance abuse, unexplained leave of absence, changes in relationships.
Yet the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that many claims have been reviewed inadequately. According to a report released on Aug. 21, about 1,300 claims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) connected to sexual trauma during military service were denied without following the correct procedure between April and September 2017 alone.
The OIG sampled 169 claims filed during that period and found that half—82 cases—had been mishandled and wrongly rejected for simple procedural errors. The causes of such mishandling have been found to be primarily procedural: In 28% of cases, survivors who qualified for medical examinations to confirm their claims were not given one. In 13% of cases, there was a failure in gathering evidence. In 11%, the Veterans filing the claims were not contacted by the VA’s officers reviewing the claims. And in 10% of cases, the OIG found that reviewers misjudged claims of sexual abuse due to incomplete and controversial information.
This only reflects a few months worth of processing, which means that thousands more claims may have been mishandled over the years. According to the report, reviewers may not have received adequate training, and did not follow guidelines and procedures. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire has issued a letter to the VA demanding specific details about how it intends to move forward in the review process.
The VA told Quartz that it concurs with and approves of the OIG’s recommendations, and that it will begin implementing right away. “We know this is an area where the department can improve,” a spokesperson said, adding that the VA has required all officers processing claims to take specific training to handle military sexual assault.
Further, the agency will review all denied claims decided between October 2016 and June 2018. “If mistakes were made,” the spokesperson said, “we will fix them in order to ensure affected Veterans are getting all of the support, benefits and services they have earned.”
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs improperly denied hundreds of military sexual trauma claims in recent years, leaving potentially thousands of Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder without benefits, a VA inspector general investigation found.
The Defense Department’s school system’s policies for dealing with serious student misconduct including sexual assault and sexual harassment are under scrutiny by the DoD Inspector General, according to an announcement from the IG.
WASHINGTON — The Defense Department released its Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, which shows that service member reporting of sexual assault increased by about 10 percent in fiscal year 2017.
Traditional methods can backfire, but ideas like teaching bystanders to intervene and promoting more women have proved effective.
After reporting her sexual assault, a now-retired lieutenant colonel with the West Virginia Army National Guard was retaliated against by a brigadier general, the Defense Department's inspector general said in a new report.
Editor's Note: This article contains a description of suicide. 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.
In the weeks leading up to Brandon Caserta's death, friends said little seemed amiss with the smiling sailor they knew from the "gedunk," or canteen, at Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 out of Norfolk, Virginia.
A goofy, happy-go-lucky type, Caserta was usually the first to volunteer for "cleaning duty, aircraft wash or field day," squadron mates said. Sure, he regretted breaking a leg at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School two years before, an injury that forced him to drop out of training to become a SEAL, but he was a trouper nonetheless.
"He was the kind of person that would drop whatever he was doing to help someone else. Day or night, rain or shine, he was always there," hometown friend Destini Mohn said in a Facebook post on his memorial page.
"Brandon was home for a few weeks [in May 2018] and he was happy, making plans for Christmas," said his father, Patrick Caserta, a retired Navy career counselor with 22 years of service. "He was a loving, caring, friendly kid."
But the 21-year-old aircrew aviation electrician's mate striker, or AEAN, did confide to friends via text that he was depressed about BUD/S and unhappy with his rating, which he felt forced to choose from a limited selection after leaving the SEAL training pipeline.
A Toxic Leader
Being at HSC-28 didn't help: Caserta and his colleagues worked for a lead petty officer (LPO) who berated them publicly, frequently cursed at them and called them out for the slightest infraction. He teased Caserta as a "BUD/S dud" and once intentionally dropped one of Brandon's care packages in front of him to watch the sailor's reaction.
Command leaders were aware of this abusive sailor, but they also knew Caserta wanted out of the squadron. He had applied for a transfer to the naval aircrewman rating and was accepted. But another accident happened. Caserta broke his collarbone while riding his bicycle, threatening his chance to make the move.
Because of the injury, Caserta's orders were canceled and he was sent back to selling candy and snacks for several months. And the progress he'd made in earning his professional qualifications as an aviation electrician's mate reset to zero. He'd been 72% complete.
His chiefs told him that he couldn't reapply for aircrew until he completed the qualifications, and they also handed him a new requirement: get a driver's license so he could be cycled into the duty driver schedule and operate vehicles on the flight line.
Except that Brandon Caserta didn't drive. He had never owned a car, didn't have insurance and, while he had taken a driving course as a teen, had never been on the road by himself. In fact, his parents Patrick and Teri said he had a phobia and hadn't been behind the wheel since taking a driver's course. He only went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a license so he would have a state ID and could legally drive in an emergency.
Like many young people, Caserta relied on Uber, friends and his bicycle to get around.
But HSC-28 was having none of it. The chiefs conducted a search of the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles website and found that Caserta had once held a valid driver's license. They directed him to fork over $12 for a duplicate copy and told him they were sending him to a disciplinary review board for hiding the fact that he had a license.
He would drive the command's 18-person passenger van and no longer inconvenience any other sailors by requesting transportation to and from medical appointments for his re-rate application, according to several command counseling sheets.
"You have not performed your required duties as a watchstander (duty driver) like your peers and superiors since your assignment to HSC-28 due to the fact that you stated you are not a licensed driver. ... Recommend Disciplinary Review Board," stated his counseling record from June 22, 2018.
For Caserta, though, facing a year or more under a toxic LPO in a rating he hated, getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and enduring a disciplinary board appeared to be too much.
On June 25, 2018, Caserta left notes to several friends and his parents, walked out on the flight line at Naval Station Norfolk and hurled himself into the spinning tail rotor of an MH-60S helicopter.
"I'm sorry you have to see this," he shouted to the plane captain before he died.
The decision to take one's own life is deeply personal, one made for reasons the dead often take to the grave with them. But in his suicide note, Caserta faulted the Navy, asking his parents to "go after the re-rate process" that put him in a job he hated, and expose what he saw as a flawed command.
"I want to see as many people fired, kicked out or, at the very least, lose rank," he wrote.
The words could easily be attributed to a sailor angry at the system, unhappy with himself and frustrated with life. Indeed, the command investigation concluded that Caserta was "suffering from a number of stressors, including a feeling of worthlessness since he had dropped on request from Special Warfare training and dissatisfaction with the Navy."
But the investigation found something else: a leadership problem in HSC-28 that started with Caserta's lead petty officer.
"[The lead petty officer]'s noted belligerence, vulgarity and brash leadership was likely a significant contributing factor in AEAN Caserta's decision to end his own life," the investigation states.
The investigator found "sufficient evidence to take [the LPO] to captain's mast for violation of UCMJ Article 93, Cruelty and Maltreatment" regarding Caserta. But the investigating officer then recommended against mast, instead suggesting the aviation electrician's mate 1st class, or AE1, be transferred with a "declining" evaluation.
"I do not recommend [mast] due to the fact that the member can refuse captain's mast enduring to a special or general courts-martial, further extending the timeline and exacerbating the healing process for all effected [sic] personnel," the investigating officer wrote.
The lead petty officer remains in the Navy, never having received punitive action. Military.com is not naming him as he has not been charged.
Cmdr. David Hecht, the public affairs officer for Naval Air Force Atlantic, said the LPO was placed in a leadership position after his dismissal from another supervisory role because the Navy believes in leadership opportunities and second chances.
"When he returned from detachment, he was counseled on leadership techniques, ways to improve his demeanor with junior sailors and given another opportunity to lead," Hecht said.
For the most part, this strategy appears to work. But the Navy has had its share of what are considered "toxic leaders," notably even with the service's top enlisted leader, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Stephen Giordano, who retired in 2018 after an investigation found he publicly berated and humiliated his staff and treated aides like servants.
And toxic leadership, some experts say, can have a deleterious effect on those considering suicide. The Navy's suicide rate in 2018 was the highest it's ever been.
While post-mortem analyses of suicides usually show that the victim faced major issues -- financial or relationship problems, medical issues, mental health conditions -- leaders can and do play a substantial role, according to research conducted by Dave Matsuda, an anthropologist at California State University-East Bay who studied a suicide cluster among soldiers in Iraq in 2010.
Asked by the Army to "think outside the box" in studying the deaths, Matsuda found that, given the opportunity, some noncommissioned officers and officers in the chain of command make their subordinates' lives a living hell. These "toxic leaders," Matsuda concluded, can contribute to suicide decisions.
While the bad leaders weren't wholly responsible for the suicides, they did help push the soldiers over the edge, he said.
"If someone is getting smoked, it doesn't make sense to keep that leader, that commander. They are part of the problem," Matsuda said. "But, you know, all too often the military in these cases just interviews the circle of command, not the circle of trust. And the command isn't going to admit there is a problem.
"It's a bit like the Catholic Church and the sex abuse scandal," he added. "Just shuffle the toxic leaders off to another place."
The tirades of Caserta's LPO were well known in the command. He had been counseled while serving as a detachment LPO for "intolerable and unprofessional" behavior toward subordinates, and later relieved when his behavior didn't change.
Back at the squadron, he was sent to anger management classes and reassigned as LPO over Brandon and other junior sailors under a new chief petty officer "as a leadership challenge."
Unit chiefs were to visit the LPO’s shop more frequently, "engage the sailors and attempt to ensure they had a means to convey any concerns if things weren't working out," according to the command investigation.
Hecht told Military.com that the lead petty officer was placed back in charge of junior sailors because "the bedrock of Navy culture is the continued leadership development of both our junior and senior sailors."
"HSC-28 took actions to mentor the AE1 and help him improve his demeanor ... and give another opportunity to lead," Hecht said.
But Brandon's father, and other sailors in the command, say the decision was made by a callous leadership cadre interested only in making mission and achieving the next rank.
The command, Patrick Caserta asserts, was "so hostile, corruptive and unethical," they tormented Brandon and drove him past the brink of despair. He uses the term "murder" to describe what they did to his son.
"They killed him," he told Military.com. "We are so angry at them for not looking out for Brandon and the other troops."
"When they talk about suicide," Patrick Caserta added, referring to the command and the Pentagon as a whole, "they talk about trauma, exposure to war and mental health. But they don't talk about harassment, bullying. They just don't want to say that it happens and they are at fault."
Aviation Machinist's Mate 2nd Class (AW) Justin MacMillan, who spent nearly four years at HSC-28, said a crisis could have been foreseen. MacMillan served with Caserta and reached out to the family after Brandon's death, hoping to provide them some solace and affirmation.
"The climate [at the unit] was just go, go, go, do, do, do, we'll worry about any personal stuff later," MacMillan said. "When I checked out of the command, I told them that if they kept treating people this way, they are going to have something really bad happen."
Hecht said that after the lead petty officer's initial counseling, "no concerns meriting his removal from his position were ever brought to the awareness of HSC-28's leadership."
But an anonymous message sent to squadron commander Cmdr. Duane Whitmer on June 18, 2018, showed the abuse hadn't stopped. According to the unsigned message provided by both Patrick Caserta and included in the command investigation, the LPO called subordinates his "bitches" and referred to the chiefs behind their backs as "douchebags" and "dumbasses." He "treated his workers worse than garbage" and "like dogs."
The LPO eventually was transferred on June 28, 2018, three days after Caserta's death, and only after he was heard making "derogatory and inflammatory comments concerning the deceased."
Yet the move, according to his counseling record, was "not punitive," and "was going to happen anyway due to all the detachments that are underway to mitigate our manpower shortfalls," the record noted.
A Troubling Trend
Caserta's death was one of 68 Navy suicides in 2018. It was the worst year for suicides since the service began tracking them closely after Sept. 11, 2001. Caserta's was one of three in Norfolk-based helicopter squadrons in the first half of the year alone.
While military service was once considered a protective measure against suicide, military suicide rates have risen steadily in the years since 9/11, both among those who have deployed and those who have never deployed. The rise mirrors an increase in suicides among the general U.S. population, and suicide experts are struggling to understand why.
Those at risk include people between the ages of 15 to 24 and those over age 60. Other factors include having spent time in prison or jail, having a mental health disorder or a substance abuse problem, family violence or history of suicide, and having guns in the home, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
MacMillan and other sailors said the stress in the command was exacerbated by the high operational tempo. The concerns they describe are similar to the stress and readiness issues determined to be a factor in the deadly collisions of the guided missile destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain.
"They are working like 14 aircraft with the manning of five," MacMillan said. "They aren't leading anymore. They're dragging people along just trying to complete mission and chase their next rank."
Hecht said manning issues did not play a role in any of the command's decisions. He did not provide data regarding the unit's manning requirements or its current staffing.
A toxic leader, according to Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, "operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest," consistently using "dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves."
They are, the directive states, a combination of "self centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance."
The Navy has had its share of documented toxic leaders in recent years, with retired Capt. Holly Graf perhaps the most notorious. As commanding officer of the cruiser Cowpens, she was relieved in 2010 for demeaning and humiliating crew members, exploding with fury and a seemingly bottomless trough of expletives in tirades aimed at subordinates.
More recently, the commanding officer of the cruiser Shiloh, Capt. Adam Aycock, who managed to complete his command tour, was found to have overseen a ship in complete dysfunction, his leadership threatening the ship's readiness by causing exhaustion, despair and suicidal thoughts among sailors, according to a report in Navy Times.
Toxic leadership has even permeated the highest ranks of the service: Giordano retired the week Caserta killed himself, following an inspector general investigation into his bullying and verbally abusive behavior toward subordinates and staff.
MacMillan said he saw similar behavior at HSC-28. Caserta's LPO often "screamed, yelled and name-called" when sailors forgot to do something or made a mistake, and he would "throw fits worse than my toddler."
And a senior chief went behind his back, calling the Bureau of Naval Personnel to prevent MacMillan from going to BUD/S.
"I called the [Enlisted Community Management Branch] to ask why I got denied, and he said, 'Your senior chief had quite a few negative things to say about you.' I never found out what senior chief said, but when he got the news, he called me in and just laughed in my face. 'You aren't going back to BUD/S, you are going on the [amphibious assault ship] Kearsarge,'" MacMillan recalled. "He literally dimed me out just to get me to man a deployment."
MacMillan finally filed a Naval Inspector General complaint against the command after another issue arose: He requested to remain at the squadron and not go out on a detachment when his wife fell ill and he needed to support her and his two girls, a toddler and an infant.
He was transferred out of HSC-28 two weeks after filing the complaint.
Another sailor who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution simply described the climate at HSC-28 as "terrible."
"It was awful," the sailor said. "There's one lead petty officer who is pretty good. But other than her, no one is looking out for junior sailors."
Fighting for Answers
In the last weeks of Caserta's life, his parents became so concerned about his welfare that his father called the command, hoping to speak with the command master chief. Instead, he reached Caserta's maintenance master chief, who told him that "people in the squadron had to do two deployments because [Caserta] didn't have his quals."
Patrick Caserta says this statement means the command never had any intention of allowing his son to transfer ratings.
"They were trying to just keep him in the command and force him ... to deploy," he said.
Hecht said HSC-28 required Caserta to get his qualifications because in the Navy, to be recommended for any special program, including aircrew transition, "the expectation is that sailors are excelling in their current positions and meeting all the necessary requirements."
"HSC-28 wanted AEAN Caserta to be successful, and his leadership was actively engaged in helping him pursue his professional qualifications in support of his career goals," Hecht said.
Patrick Caserta seriously doubts that. "They made him work in gedunk for a year. They had no interest in his career," he said.
At the moment Brandon Caserta was making his final long walk out to the flight line, Patrick Caserta was on the phone with the command master chief, expressing concern for his son's welfare and telling him he planned to fly to Norfolk to take Brandon to base legal and the equal opportunity office to discuss his options.
Brandon died before the call ended.
The unit held a memorial service four days later; Patrick and Teri say they weren't invited. Navy policy states that the command should provide round-trip travel and allowances to family members to attend a command memorial service. Hecht said the memorial service was scheduled to allow the maximum number of unit members to attend and that the family was given "advanced notice." The family also was "provided a video of the memorial service, a piece of memorabilia signed by all the squadron members and a letter of condolence from the command," he said.
Patrick Caserta said the family was excluded out of sheer pettiness.
"The command disrespected him and they disrespected us," he said.
Desperate for answers on their son's death, the Casertas reached out to Brandon's NCOs, the friends he left gifts and notes for and those he had spoken about in texts. Eventually, the friends stopped responding. The Casertas believe the command ordered a cessation of communications; the command investigation notes that most individuals decided to limit communications because it "wasn't helping the grieving process."
A Reward for Information
It's hard to tell which version is accurate, but a text sent to Brandon's parents from a junior sailor on May 31, 2019 -- after the command learned that Military.com had made phone calls regarding the Casertas' allegations -- indicates a culture of fear at the squadron.
"We are all scared that we will get into trouble. It sucks that telling the truth will make things bad for [anyone] who speaks up," the sailor wrote.
The Casertas are so angry and distraught that they have offered a $25,000 reward to anyone who will come forward with information that "would lead to successful prosecution of individuals in their son's chain of command."
They have met with congressional staff of a dozen senators and representatives, including Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, to discuss the treatment they and Brandon received, request an independent investigation and promote efforts to prevent suicide linked to toxic leadership.
They also would like to see the Navy implement Brandon Caserta's request in his suicide note regarding the re-rate process: that sailors who don't complete the training for the rate they initially sought be able to select any other training they qualify for with their Armed Services Vocational Battery Test results.
Matsuda, the anthropologist, said that to truly address the problem of suicide in the armed forces, the services should consider toxic leadership when analyzing individual deaths. Operational leaders, he said, should not rely on "the boot camp strategy of breaking people down to build them back up."
"There's no proof that strategy works," Matsuda said. "And in some cases, people who are ridden hard can't take it. Toxic command climate can most certainly trigger suicidal behavior."
Whitmer, the commanding officer of HSC-28 at the time of Caserta's suicide, completed his command tour last month and has moved on. Former executive officer Cmdr. Trevor Prouty is the squadron's new CO. Command Master Chief David Tokarski remains with the squadron. One chief petty officer with the unit was promoted to ensign after Caserta's death and another is on terminal leave. The LPO remains at a unit in Norfolk.
Caserta's parents have taken their grievances public, publishing an essay earlier this week on militarycorruption.com. The Navy, they say, should find the toxic leadership of the LPO, and the subsequent failure of the command to stop the harassment of Caserta and other sailors, reprehensible.
"Make no mistake, HSC-28 murdered our son Brandon. Senior officials of HSC-28 bear the ultimate responsibility for their failures such as the decision to keep AE1 in charge. They all turned a blind eye to [his] bullying and hatred toward Brandon and others," they wrote.
Mental Health and Suicide Among Veterans
Among many veterans, mental health conditions or substance abuse disorders are becoming more prevalent in recent years. In military culture, mental illness is often seen as a weakness and is highly stigmatized. This is the reason why many active duty members and veterans do not seek treatment for their mental health condition.
Combat veterans are often exposed to multiple traumatic episodes throughout their military careers. While some studies have found that combat trauma is related to suicide, others have not, meaning that the heightened risk of suicide may depend on how intense and how often a veteran experienced combat trauma. Some service members can experience traumatic events; combat related or not, and walk away okay, while others are haunted forever. Every veteran has a different experience during their time in service and no two veteran’s experiences are the same. In this post, we will specifically discuss symptoms of PTSD and depression and suicidal ideation.
PTSD and Depression
Posttraumatic stress disorder is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. Depression is having feelings of severe despondency and dejection. PTSD and depression have been found to be a risk factor for suicidal ideation. Some symptoms of PTSD include:
- Feeling upset by thins that remind you of the traumatic event
- Feeling emotionally cut off from others
- Easy startle
- Having vivid nightmares, memories or flashbacks of the event
- Concentration issues
- Sleep disturbance
- Irritation or angry outburst
- Feeling numb or losing interest in things that were once enjoyable
- Suicidal ideation
Some symptoms of depression include:
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Losing interest or not getting please from most daily activities
- Gaining or losing weight
- Sleeping too much or not enough almost every day
- Feeling tired or as if you have no energy almost every day
What is suicidal ideation?
If you have been diagnosed with PTSD or any mental health condition, you may have come across the words “suicidal ideation” in your medical records. Suicidal ideation is thinking about, considering or planning suicide. Suicidal ideation is a symptom that is included in the VA Rating Schedule for Mental Health Conditions. The VA considers the presence of this symptom when making a determination for your VA disability rating for PTSD, anxiety, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental health conditions.
Studies have shown that suicide risk is higher in veterans with PTSD. Many veterans have disturbing thoughts that bring them back to the original traumatic experience. It is important to know that these experiences do not have to be combat related. Some veterans will experience PTSD or depression that was caused by personal assault or military sexual trauma (MST).
If you have suicidal thoughts, it is important to seek assistance. While traumatic events of the past cannot be undone, there are multiple ways veterans can receive help for their service-related suicidal thoughts. Getting help is the first step on the road to recovery and treatment. Please contact the Veterans Crisis Line online or call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255.