Restoring honor and releasing the shame of suicide
On December 8, 2021, I almost lost my combat veteran husband to a self-inflicted gun wound—words I never thought would be a part of our story. Immediately following, we lost our family sitter, our neighbors made a spectacle of our crisis, and a close advocate friend called law enforcement stating she feared for my life and safety; which created extra hurdles in the recovery and healing journey. A moment of crisis became a taboo conversation, a perplexing situation of reconciling honor and service with guilt and shame, and a critical juncture in how we viewed suicide.
I have worked with Gold Star families who lost loved ones to suicide. I have chased down justice for victims, like Asia Graham who was violently raped and later died by accidental overdose. Yet, I was still unprepared for the unwelcome fear and debilitating heaviness that gripped my heart and mind—when my husband almost became a name among the 22 a day.
According to the World Health Organization, “For every suicide, there are likely 20 other people making a suicide attempt and many more have serious thoughts of suicide. Millions of people suffer intense grief or are otherwise profoundly impacted by suicidal behaviors.”
In fact, each death by suicide or attempts makes profound impacts to those around them—this was certainly true for our family. As we use the month of September to shine a light on suicide prevention and advocacy, we must also honor those who have died by suicide, we must provide compassion for those who need help now, and dismantle the stigma that surrounds mental health.
Two families and one organization are leading the way to honor the fallen and bring tangible hope to veterans, military service members and military families.
A Kind, Brave, and Loving Soul
Nicole Burnham enlisted into the Army in 2015, her first duty station was Camp Casey in South Korea. Within months of reporting for duty, Nicole was sexually assaulted, and suffered serious retaliation from her peers and her leadership failed her by not properly handling her case.
Nicole requested an expedited transfer, which was approved but took 82 days to relocate her back stateside—by that time her family had seen a dramatic shift in her personality and demeanor.
“My daughter [Nicole] was a quirky, adventurous, fun, loving, creative, and outgoing leader,” Stacey Burnham recalled. “She was always smiling and never met a stranger. She was a kind-brave-loving soul and a truly bright light in the world.”
Stacey knew things were different with her daughter when she spoke to her on the phone, a gradual despair loomed as a result of her ongoing suffering, especially being stuck in a foreign country near her assailant.
"There were times when [Nicole] would admit that, ‘I just didn’t want to talk to anybody, I’m depressed, I really don’t leave my room,’" Stacey said. "She never talked about being suicidal. It was more just like, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.’"
Stacey and Steve Burnham noticed their little girl was not the same once she came home, just prior to her death. She slept a lot and even barricaded herself in her room at times. But when her leave was over, Nicole had to report to her new duty station in Colorado.
A few short weeks later on January 26, 2018, Nicole died by suicide.
A Walk of Hope
The Burnham family honors Nicole’s life by telling her story and raising awareness in multiple ways.
“We keep Nicole’s name alive in many ways. We walk or ruck in her honor at as many events as possible. We attend motorcycle rides, TAPS [Tragedy Assistance for Survivors] events, a local boots event and tell her story to anyone who will listen,” declared Stacey. “We hold a 5K walk in her honor in our hometown called ‘A Walk to Honor; an Honor to Walk—The Nicole Burnham Veteran Suicide Awareness 5k.’ The Anoka Kindness Rock Garden was created in her memory.”
On October 1, 2022, the Burnham family will host the fourth annual 5k in memory of Nicole, around Rum Lake in Anoka, Minnesota. Through their efforts of sharing Nicole’s story of sexual assault, bullying, harassment, and failures of her leadership—led the Army to review their Expedited Victims Transfer policy and timeliness in which victims are transferred.
The family carries on the legacy of hope in sharing her story to encourage others to speak up and take the step of care they deserve.
If Stacey could travel to heaven, this is what she would tell Nicole. “First and foremost, we are so f-ing proud of her and that we are so very sorry for what she went through. If we knew then what we know now…. And if we knew the people then who we know now she would be alive!”
The family is heartbroken and life is not the same without their sassy and sweet daughter. The Burnhams are committed to keeping Nicole’s legacy alive and making a difference for others in similar situations.
If you want to know more about Nicole Burnham, please visit their Facebook page.
A Heart of Gold and a Smile to Match
Brandon Caserta was a beloved son, a devoted athlete, a devout bicyclist, and a young man with a heart of gold.
Teri Caserta, Brandon’s mom remembers him with such great affection and kindness. “He had a smile that made you automatically smile back. He was always there for everyone who needed him no matter the time of day. He was very athletic. He was in swimming and karate since he was 4 years old and in sports programs year-round including high school football. He was never in any trouble and always did the right thing no matter what.”
A mother’s dream, Brandon was both smart and thoughtful. “Besides loving to work out, he loved building Legos and metal 3D models in his spare time, Teri said. “He rode his bike everywhere and went through bikes like people do pens. He would actually wear the bearings out in less than six months. Brandon always lived by his karate code words: Honor, Respect, Patience, and Kindness.”
In May 2015, a 17-year-old Brandon Caserta joined the US Navy with a plan to become an elite Navy SEAL. In preparation, he rode his bike 17-miles a day, swam for two hours and maintained his regular workouts for two solid years prior to shipping off to Basic Underwater Demolition (BUD)/S SEAL training—a committed young man.
During BUD/S SEAL training he experienced severe leg pain that was so extreme, he lost consciousness, which cost him his chance at obtaining his dream and sent him to a hospital for further review.
At first, doctors told Brandon it was shin splints, but Brandon insisted it was worse and eventually was sent to get an x-ray. Doctors discovered he had a broken tibia and was suffering from Hemoptysis (SIPE - coughing up blood) and pneumonia. According to The Brandon Castera Foundation.org, “Brandon had been running 20 miles a day, running with boats on head and running with telephone poles all on a broken leg, but was not considered ‘Seal Worthy.’”
Still committed to serving in the Navy, Brandon was reassigned as an Aviation Electrician. He arrived to his first duty station, where he would experience hazing, bullying, harassment and ongoing retaliation from his toxic abusive leadership for failing to complete BUD/S SEAL training.
According to Brandon’s last note to his parents, his death by suicide was a result of lost confidence in his leadership who facilitated an environment of despicable bullying, berating and intimidation that pushed him to the brink. He wrote, “I want this depression over and let’s be honest it was never going to go away…It was the Navy’s fault. Not, I repeat, not yours!”
On June 25, 2018, Brandon’s last words to the flight line crew captain, “I am sorry for what you are about to see,” and then proceeded to make lethal contact with the helicopter’s spinning tail-rotor blades as it sat on the tarmac.
Brandon’s Story Saves Lives
Up to 22 veterans a day die by suicide; three to four active duty members will take their lives every single day.
“When Brandon died, he left us a note stating that he would not have been in this situation if things and the culture were different in our military. Keeping his legacy alive is saving lives,” Teri said. “Since Brandon’s death, Patrick [Brandon’s father] and I created and lobbied congress for The Brandon Act. This act empowers service members to get mental health help without going through their chain of command and without retaliation. Essentially, removing the stigma of getting permission for help and receiving the care members desperately need.”
After three long years, The Brandon Act finally passed in both the House and Senate as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). President Biden signed it into law on December 27, 2021.
After The Brandon Act passed, the Caserta’s decided to establish The Brandon Caserta Foundation where they can continue to help active duty service members and veterans with getting mental health care. The Brandon Caserta Foundation leads the charge in saving all service members’ lives.
“We are the first responders who [are] always on the watch for everyone who serves,” Teri said.
The family receives calls and messages from distressed sailors all the time. One that hit close to home was a young lady who witnessed Brandon’s death. She was on the verge of jumping off a 12-story balcony, but Patrick and Teri were able to save her from suicide during that call.
“This sailor was a single mother of a 2-year-old … I am so grateful she called us,” Teri recalled. “We made a friend who has become like a daughter to us. She became an advocate of the Brandon Act and we still talk to her to this day.”
It has been four years since Brandon’s death and his family continues to demand better care for service members to protect other families from experiencing such pain. Teri misses her son and wants him to know “that even though we are extremely hurt he decided to leave us, his legacy is saving lives. Both Patrick and I are doing everything in our power to save the lives of our service members as he asked us to do for him in his final letter.”
Find out more here.
On Mission to Break the Stigma
Last September, I discovered the Suicide Awareness and Remembrance (SAR) Flag, created by Air Force Veteran, Kevin W. Hertell. In 2016 Kevin’s cousin, Senior Airman Robert Dean, died by suicide. After Robert’s passing, Kevin discovered the tragic suicide epidemic plaguing military veterans.
Kevin’s primary mission is to break the stigma of mental health and suicide within our warrior culture to facilitate suicide prevention.
“Most importantly, we are committed to honoring and remembering those lost (who are currently ignored and forgotten) and by having the SAR Flag as a tangible symbol of hope to living Veterans and Military,” Kevin explained.
The SAR Flag is similar to the POW/MIA Flag and steeped with symbolism, black for mourning, gold for honoring the fallen service, and a star that represents all branches of service to name a few.
“The flag was the best way, I knew how to honor the fallen, lost by suicide by forever remembering them and their service through the symbolism on the SAR Flag,” Kevin said. “We conduct remembrance ceremonies where we say their names and share their photos. We respect their families by recognizing their loss without judgment. We let families know that we care and are united with them as they mourn.”
Veterans Suicide Awareness & Remembrance Day
September 22 is a day set aside to remember Veterans and Military members our nation has lost to suicide. Kevin and his team have worked with local and state government on coalition legislation to annually recognize September 22 as, ‘Veterans Suicide Awareness & Remembrance Day’ and we aim to get that passed into law by Congress.
“By having an annual observance, we elevate this issue into the public consciousness as we raise our continued awareness. On that day, we honor and remember those lost and honor, respect, and unite their families,” Kevin said. “It is important that we recognize our brothers and sisters who have died by suicide and mourn with their families. This helps families heal, assists with closure, and solidifies ongoing support.”
The impacts Kevin has seen since creating the SAR Flag are so heart-warming, it brings tears to his eyes when he reflects on the messages and calls he has gotten from surviving family members. There are too many for him to pick one that matters most—they all matter.
“There is not one story to tell but many. There have been mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and family of those lost, who sent me photos along with the stories about their loved ones,” Kevin said. “I think the greatest impact we are having is changing the perception of mental health and suicide with the help of the families who have lost a loved one. This turns their grief into action with the hope of saving others from the same fate.”
If you want to get involved with the SAR flag mission, find out more here.
You Are Not Alone
According to one of the largest studies of mental health risk among the U.S. military, the rate of major depression among soldiers was five times as high as civilians, and the rate of PTSD was nearly 15 times higher.
Stigma free care is available. On July 16, 2020, the 988 hotline was established as a nationwide, easy-to-remember 3-digit dialing code for people in crisis to connect with suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors.
Please remember that you are human and feeling emotions, good or bad is natural. There is no shame to feel heaviness, despair, or hopelessness. You are not alone! To anyone who may be hurting today, here is some advice from Kevin who has mourned alongside families who miss their loved ones every single day.
“Remember no matter what your brain is telling you in a dark moment, you are a modern-day warrior, regardless of rank or specialty, you are strong and brave and you can make it through to another day,” encourages Kevin. “Please know this, there’s a way out of everything but death, and if you feel that death is the only option to end your pain, recognize that moment as a signal that you are in crisis and you need help.”
Please get help, dial 988!