You can listen to U.S. Navy veteran Brian Lewis’ March 13, 2013 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel here.
“Nearly 30 years ago, when George H. W. Bush was president and Dick Cheney was the secretary of defense, the Pentagon made a promise to our service members. Dozens of Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers had just been investigated for the infamous Tailhook sexual assault scandal, and America’s military leadership affirmed a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual assault within their ranks. The military had a sexual assault problem, and pledged to solve it.
It’s painfully clear that the military has now failed at this mission by almost any metric. For years, survivor after survivor has told us the change in the system we needed to make to end this scourge — the same change that a number of our allies around the world have already made: take the adjudication of these crimes outside of the chain of command and allow trained military prosecutors to prosecute them.” Read more opinion at Military Timeshere.
“The Military Justice Improvement Act would take the prosecution of sexual assault and other serious crimes, such as murder, out of the chain of command. It would keep those crimes in the military justice system, but put the decision to prosecute them into the hands of actual military prosecutors who are trained to deal with complex legal issues.” –Senator Kirsten Gillbrand (Military Times, July 1, 2019)
Gillibrand Leads Bipartisan Coalition to Reform Military Justice System -Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (May 16, 2013)
Trailer: When a dancer is murdered in her Virginia home, investigators are hopeful they can crack the case. But after interviewing a series of suspects, detectives realize the case is much more complicated than previously thought. Could an unexpected tip lead them to an unlikely person? -Dateline NBC (S27,E32)
On April 10, 2008, Navy sailor Chris Shortt discovered his step-daughter Meghan Landowski stabbed to death in their Portsmouth, Virginia home. Meghan was 16 years old and from the looks of the crime scene, there was a struggle; Meghan fought back. Investigators learned the killer used a knife from the family’s kitchen. They found it in a gutter down the street. The police didn’t know who committed the murder but they believed it was personal and Meghan knew her attacker. Chris and Angie Shortt believed Robert Hickey killed Meghan and they called NCIS at Naval Station Norfolk to let them know what happened. NCIS questioned Hickey. Robert Hickey was a military officer who was on his way to the rank of Captain when he was accused of sexual assault by Meghan. Robert was a close friend of the family and NCIS believe he groomed Meghan for a sexual relationship. Meghan said Rob began touching her when she was 14 and by age 15, Meghan was having a sexual relationship with a 30-year-old man.
The family supported Meghan as she pressed charges against Robert but they learned from civilian investigators that Hickey’s crimes amounted to a misdemeanor in Virginia; he would spend 12 months maximum in prison. But Robert Hickey was a Navy sailor and subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Navy was investigating and planning to prosecute the case. When NCIS questioned Robert Hickey about Meghan’s murder, he invoked his right to silence. NCIS considered Hickey a person of interest because he had a lot to gain if Meghan died. Meghan feared Hickey because he had a lot to lose. But Hickey’s DNA didn’t match the DNA collected at the crime scene and NCIS had no proof that Hickey committed the crime. Nonetheless, Hickey was given an other than honorable discharge from Navy. The police also suspected Meghan’s high school friend Donald because they dated in the past but the DNA didn’t match him either. At least 80 people volunteered DNA. Investigators sent the DNA for further testing to determine the geographic ancestry identity and learned the DNA belonged to an African American.
This changed the direction of the investigation and detectives began looking for African Americans in Meghan’s life. One person who became a person of interest was a counselor at Norfolk Naval Station but this individual wouldn’t cooperate with the investigation. Five months after Meghan’s murder, every lead dried up and fear was building in the community. Then a community member planned a memorial walk to help generate new leads. It was at this point someone came forward with Robert Barnes’ name. Investigators learned Meghan and Barnes were on the same bus and both participated in an exclusive arts program at school. Robert played the violin and was on his way to becoming a success story. Robert was described as a nice guy who blended in; he was fully committed to his violin music. A friend suspected Robert liked Meghan and when she asked him, he admitted it. Detectives went to the school to speak to Robert Lee Barnes and asked for a DNA sample. Eventually he acquiesced and gave investigators a used piece of gum.
The DNA was tested and the crime scene investigators reported the DNA submitted by Robert Barnes actually belonged to a girl; the police needed to talk to Robert again. In this interview, Robert Barnes admitted he was in Meghan’s house on the day of the murder. He said he went to Meghan’s house and climbed through the window after no one answered the door. He said he walked into a crime in progress; the perpetrator was wearing a mask and holding Meghan at gun point. Robert said the masked man asked him to have sex with Meghan, asked him to stab Meghan, and cut him to leave his DNA at the scene. The police believed that Robert Barnes was making this all up and arrested him. Robert’s DNA matched the DNA at the crime scene. Given the mountain of evidence against him, Robert’s defense attorney asked for a plea deal. Robert Lee Barnes pleaded guilty to first degree murder, attempted rape, aggravated sexual battery, abduction, and statutory burglary. In return, Barnes will be eligible for early release from prison in 42 years. Meghan’s parents were relieved there would be no trial.
ID Go: A couple from Michigan realizes a long held dream when they relocate to Florida, but their life in the sun is destroyed when they get into a fatal conflict with their neighbor. -This Bullet’s for You, Fear Thy Neighbor (S5, E7)
Date: July 4, 2012 Victim: Keith Lewandowski, 46, contractor Offender: Bruce Schunk, 65, security guard, former military mechanic (veteran) Location: Clearwater, Florida Circumstances: Bruce Schunk moved to Florida to be near his sister, Bruce loved his dog Sweeney and always walked his dog, this community meant the world to Bruce, Sandra and Keith moved to Florida from Michigan, the newcomers fit right in with the community, Rudy Derrazo also lived in the community, Bruce broke his phone and Sandra & Keith gave him one to use, Bruce was trying to be a good neighbor and replaced a battery in Sandra’s car, Bruce and Sandra said he didn’t know what he was doing and the fix made the car worse, they didn’t want to be stuck with the bill and asked Bruce to pay for it but he refused, if Keith couldn’t get his money back, he was going to take the cell phone he gave Bruce, Keith called the phone, heard it in Bruce’s residence and went in and took the phone, Bruce discovered his home was broken into, he had to replace a couple broken windows, he was upset and it put him on edge, he knew who did it and confronted Keith, Keith said it was his phone and he took it, someone slashed the tires on Bruce’s new car, Bruce said he was harassed every time he took his dog for a walk, Keith would stand on his porch and bully Bruce, one neighbor said Keith was a nasty individual, Bruce didn’t want to live like this and offered a truce, Rudy and Keith were not interested, Keith made a sign saying all are welcome except Bruce, Bruce was humiliated, Keith & Rudy bullied and intimidated Bruce, Bruce put up his own sign that read “breaking and entering is a felony in Florida,” Bruce also put up some other signs like “Keith sucks,” it was a very public war of words, the neighbors didn’t like the signs and the town asked them to take them down, they didn’t hang out or talk, they didn’t acknowledge each other but Keith continued to verbally bully Bruce when he took his dog for a walk, Bruce felt like Keith was unstable, one day, Keith confronted Bruce on the street and told him to stay away from his family, neighbors called the police because they were physically fighting, the police couldn’t do anything because they were both in the wrong, the police separated them, Bruce told the cops a serious pattern was developing, neighbors agreed they should be separated, this was a conflict with no end that continued to escalate, Keith and Rudy were at war with Bruce, Bruce felt isolated, the vandalism at Bruce’s home continued, Bruce was afraid and broke down in tears over the situation when he called the police, Keith and Rudy denied doing anything to Bruce’s property, cops told Bruce next time he called, he was getting arrested, Bruce had guns strategically located in his home, Bruce shot his gun into the air on his property, the neighbors were horrified, Susan called 911 this time and reported that Bruce was shooting his gun, it was Bruce’s warning to the neighborhood, don’t mess with him, cops showed up and Bruce denied it, the police took all his guns because it appeared to be a sign of provocation, Bruce stood in the middle of the street and threw bullets at Keith and Susan’s house, Bruce told Keith he was saving one bullet for him, Keith wanted to buy a gun but Susan told him to let it go, the community waited in fear, Bruce was walking Sweeney one day when Keith and Rudy drove towards Bruce like they were going to run him down, Bruce was upset that they almost ran his dog over, Bruce had reached a point of no return, other neighbors admitted they wouldn’t put up with it as long as Bruce did, Bruce bought a new gun, mentally he had had enough, Keith and Susan were relaxing at their home, Bruce went to their home with a gun in hand, opened their unlocked door, and walked into their home, Susan threatened to call the police, Bruce pointed the firearm at Susan, Keith stepped in between Susan and Bruce, Bruce shot Keith between the eyes and let Susan live but he left her shocked and traumatized, Bruce wasn’t done yet, he wanted to settle the score with Rudy too, he went to Rudy’s house, shot in the locked door but Rudy wasn’t there, Bruce was glad he wasn’t home that day, Bruce went home, called 911, and placed the weapon on the ground, he admitted to killing Keith and said he felt terrible about what happened, Bruce asked the police to arrest him, Bruce was arrested, neighbors didn’t condone what Bruce did but they had empathy for Bruce, you can only push someone so far before they reach a breaking point, Rudy died of a heart attack not long after the shooting, Susan moved out of the neighborhood, police are not sure what set Bruce off on July 4th Disposition: Faced with a lengthy trial, Bruce Schunk pleaded guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison
Editor’s note: With a cable subscription, you can download the free ID Go app and watch all of the Investigation Discovery programming at your convenience. And for those who do not have cable, you can watch “unlocked” episodes on the ID Go app including the latest premieres. Download the ID Go app and binge away. For those who prefer commercial free programming during your binge session, Prime Video has an ID channel: ‘True Crime Files by Investigation Discovery” available for $2.99 a month. It’s a compilation of older seasons but totally worth the cost if you are a true crime addict.
I can honestly say no one is looking in this because at this point, no one cares. I just looked at the suicide rate right now in the Navy and it is now reported 43 for the year so far. I looked at it on Wednesday of last week and it was at 37. What the heck is going on and when will someone anyone going to start caring about the men and women in our Armed Forces? We need to respect the flag AND the men and women who defend it and save their lives like they do us. We all need to write to our senators and congressional staff. We need The Brandon Act passed and quickly.
I’m going to explain what “The Brandon Act” is. It is designed to be a safe word that men and women in our Armed Forces can use if they are subjects of any kind of abuse whether it’s physical, emotional or mentally. Abuse comes in many, many forms to include bullying, hazing, threats, sexual, abusive leadership, and any kind of mental and emotional abuse. These are just a few abusive tactics that can be done to someone. “The Brandon Act” protects those who come forward asking for help. It is designed for these men and women to come forward and get the help they need and if the abuse merits it, the sailor or troop will have a right to ask to be reassigned to another command or unit without any retaliation whatsoever from anyone in their current command or their next assignment. Our hope is to bring suicides to an end and by using this “Act” will hopefully allow them the courage to get help when they need it and get them healed and back on the right path. This “Act” is in front of Congress right now and hopefully very soon, they will approve and pass it once it’s completely written. Thank you for reading. #thebrandonact
-Patrick and Teri Caserta (Brandon Caserta’s parents)
Sailor’s Death at Naval Station Norfolk Ruled Suicide:
Sailor’s death at Naval Station Norfolk ruled suicide. -WAVY TV 10 (June 26, 2018)
Peoria Family Hopes for Change in Military Culture After Son Takes His Own Life:
As Teri Caserta entered her son’s bedroom in their Peoria home, she broke down. It’s an emotion that Teri and her husband Patrick Caserta will always carry with them. Their son Brandon was in the United States Navy from 2015 to 2018. However, at just 21, Brandon would take his own life. -ABC 15 Arizona (June 14, 2019)
Parents of Norfolk-Based Sailor Who Committed Suicide Want Changes:
Brandon Caserta, 21, was a sailor. He died by suicide while stationed in Norfolk. His parents hope new legislation will protect future military men and women. -13 News Now (October 4, 2019)
Navy AEAN Brandon Caserta was stationed with the Helicopter Combat Sea Squadron 28 (HSC-28) at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia when he died by suicide on June 25, 2018. While Brandon’s parents were on the phone with Navy leadership at the Squadron, Brandon walked out on the flight line, apologized to the plane captain (who is in-charge of the flight line), and hurled himself into a helicopter rotor, dying instantly. AEAN Caserta had a brief career with the Navy and it didn’t turn out the way he had hoped. He had failed Special Warfare Training and was transferred into a new career field as a result. And then unexpectedly Brandon broke his collar-bone in a bicycle accident, which also negatively impacted his Navy career. At the moment Brandon Caserta made his final walk out to the flight line, his father Patrick Caserta was on the phone with the command expressing concern for his son’s welfare. Patrick was making plans to fly out to Naval Station Norfolk to explore his son’s legal options.
Desperate for answers, the Casertas reached out to Brandon’s chain of command and friends but eventually everyone stopped responding. The Casertas were told by many friends in Brandon’s command that leadership ordered a cessation of communications. Before the silence, Brandon’s friends shared that they thought he appeared to be suffering from depression, feelings of worthlessness, and anger, hence the reason he left a note asking the Navy be held accountable. As a result of the information gleaned from the note and those who knew Brandon, the HSC-28 conducted an investigation of itself; basically the fox guarding the henhouse. Although they knew months in advance of the problems, the report did note that Brandon’s supervisor had a history of berating and belittling those who worked for him. As a matter of fact, this supervisor could have been court-martialed under UCMJ Article 93, Cruelty and Maltreatment, but he wasn’t. Instead, Military.com reports he received no punishment and was transferred with a “declining evaluation” (and this was only after it was heard and reported that he made “derogatory and inflammatory comments concerning the deceased”).
“I want to see as many people fired, kicked out or, at the very least, lose rank.” -Brandon Caserta, U.S. Navy
According to Military.com, the Navy’s suicide rate in 2018 was the highest it’s ever been. And it was reported that a post-mortem analyses of suicides in the military usually showed the victim “faced major issues like financial problems, relationship problems, medical issues, and mental health conditions.” The military reporter reached out to Dave Matsuda, an anthropologist at California State University-East Bay, who researched and studied a suicide cluster among soldiers in Iraq in 2010. Matsuda’s research found some non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and officers in the chain of command made their subordinates’ lives a “living hell.” Matsuda also added that although the “bad leaders weren’t fully responsible for the suicides, they helped push the soldiers over the edge.” But in a system where the Navy is investigating the Navy, we have learned that the Chain of Command isn’t going to admit there is a problem. They have a history of blaming the victim and/or scapegoating an enlisted NCO or lower ranking military officer.
Brandon’s father, Patrick Caserta, a retired U.S. Navy sailor himself, asserts the Command was “so hostile, corruptive and unethical,” that they tormented Brandon and drove him past the brink of despair. Patrick and Teri Caserta wholeheartedly believe the command murdered their son. Patrick reminded us that the military talks about trauma, exposure to war, and mental health, but they don’t talk about harassment and bullying. He believes military leadership do not want to admit harassment, bullying, and retaliation happen or admit they are at fault. In the days and weeks that followed their son’s death, Patrick and Teri also learned from those who worked with Brandon that they were all dealing with a high operational tempo and manpower shortfalls. Brandon’s co-workers believed “personal issues were not a high priority and Brandon’s death could have been prevented.” And an anonymous message sent to the squadron commander on June 18, 2018 revealed the abuse was ongoing before Brandon died.
According to the message, Brandon’s supervisor called subordinates his “bitches,” referred to the chiefs as “douchebags” and “dumbasses” behind their backs, and “treated workers worse than garbage” and “like dogs.” –Military.com (June 8, 2019)
Military.com reported that Brandon Caserta’s death was one of 68 Navy suicides in 2018. They also reported the rise in military suicides appears to mirror an increase in suicides among the general U.S. population. Suicide experts are struggling to understand why so many are dying by suicide. Some factors for suicide risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), include “spending time in prison or jail, having a mental health disorder or a substance abuse problem, experiencing family violence, a history of suicide, and having guns in the home.” Brandon’s family believes their son’s suicide was a direct result of toxic leadership, one superior who harassed and bullied Brandon, pushing him over the edge. According to Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, a toxic leader “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.” Although it appears there are multiple variables that impact when a service member chooses to die by suicide, the experts need to find out the why so we can save our service member’s lives. What is happening in their environment that makes them feel like suicide is the only way out?
The directive states, toxic leaders exhibit a combination of “self centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.” –Military.com (June 8, 2019)
Military.com reported that one of Brandon’s co-workers helped shed some insight into the toxic climate at the Navy’s HSC-28 squadron. He accused leadership of deploying personnel in retaliation for speaking up and not doing as they are told. This particular individual requested that he remain at the squadron when his wife got sick because he needed to support her and their two girls. But his leadership was going to deploy him with a detachment anyways. So he filed an Inspector General complaint and thankfully was transferred out of the squadron in a couple weeks. He believes Navy personnel have a “fear of retribution” because the command is resentful of the service members who can’t deploy. Brandon’s family experienced a form of retaliation as well. The unit held a memorial service for Brandon four days after he died but Patrick and Teri said they were not invited by anyone in the HSC-28 command. Patrick Caserta believes the family was excluded out of sheer pettiness; leadership wanted to continue to conceal and coverup what truly happened. Regardless of the reason, it was a violation of Navy policy.
“Navy policy states that the command should provide round-trip travel and allowances to family members to attend a command memorial service.” –Military.com (June 8, 2019)
On May 31, 2019, after the command learned that Military.com had made phone calls regarding the Casertas’ allegations, Navy personnel indicated there was a “culture of fear” at the squadron. The Casertas are so angry and distraught that communications have stopped that they offered a $25,000 reward to anyone who came forward with information that “lead to successful prosecution of individuals in their son’s chain of command.” They have also met with the congressional staff of at least a dozen senators and representatives, including Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) 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: “sailors who don’t complete the training for the rate they initially sought should be able to select any other training they qualify for with their Armed Services Vocational Battery (ASVAB) test results.”
Anthropologist Dave Matsuda told Military.com that to truly address the problem of suicide in the armed forces, “all the services need to consider ‘toxic leadership’ when analyzing the deaths of each individual.” If we understand the why, we can prevent suicide. Matsuda also believes operational leaders should not rely on “the boot camp strategy of breaking people down to build them back up.” Matsuda concluded with the assertion that indeed a toxic command climate can trigger suicidal behavior. One year later, Patrick and Teri Caserta are determined to get justice for their only son, because they believe this tragedy could’ve been prevented. The pair also report that Congress is drafting “The Brandon Act,” which is “federal legislation aimed at ending military suicides, holding commanders accountable, and halting the bullying and hazing that occurs within military ranks.” Please contact both the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) members and the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) members and your Senators and Representative to ask that they too support our troops by supporting The Brandon Act. Our service members deserve a chance at a beautiful life post military.
“The Brandon Act” is designed to be a safe word that men and women in our Armed Forces can use if they are subjects of any kind of abuse whether it’s physical, emotional or mentally. Abuse comes in many, many forms to include bullying, hazing, threats, sexual, abusive leadership, and any kind of mental and emotional abuse. These are just a few abusive tactics that can be done to someone. “The Brandon Act” protects those who come forward asking for help. It is designed for these men and women to come forward and get the help they need and if the abuse merits it, the sailor or troop will have a right to ask to be reassigned to another command or unit without any retaliation whatsoever from anyone in their current command or their next assignment. Our hope is to bring suicides to an end and by using this “Act” will hopefully allow them the courage to get help when they need it and get them healed and back on the right path. This “Act” is in front of Congress right now and hopefully very soon, they will approve and pass it once it’s completely written. Thank you for reading. –Justice for Brandon Caserta on Facebook (June 20, 2019) #TheBrandonAct