Carey Harris Stickford drove to the Columbus, Ohio, airport one last time to meet her 21-year-old daughter.
Spc. Kaylie Harris worked as a U.S. Army military police officer on Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Stickford flew up to Alaska last fall to see her. They hiked to Thunderbird Falls and explored Matanuska Glacier and Portage Lake. Her daughter said she was in paradise.
At the airport last month, Stickford met only a flag-draped coffin.
Harris, a soldier for less than a year, took her own life on May 2.
Two chaplains came to the family’s Springfield, Ohio, home early the morning of May 3 as Stickford, a travel nurse, got ready for work.
She knew immediately what had happened.
“They didn’t say anything to me,” she said. “I said right away to them, ‘My daughter killed herself. Why didn’t you call me back? My daughter is dead.’ “
Stickford didn’t know it yet, but her daughter in February had reported being sexually assaulted by another military member — 10 days after she came out publicly as a lesbian on Facebook.
The Kaylie Harris story was previously reported by USA Today and The Columbus Dispatch. As USA Today reporter Tom Vanden Brook wrote, Harris’ death “represents a confluence of currents that have ripped the military for decades: sexual assault, suicide and integrating LGBTQ troops.”
A USA Today investigation also revealed that at least six of the 12,000 U.S. Army soldiers stationed in Alaska — including Harris — have died by apparent suicide in the first five months of the year, nearly as many as died by suicide in all of 2020. That rate greatly outpaces civilian statistics.
A report of sexual assault
Harris came out on social media in January, but it was no surprise to her family and friends, her mother said.
She included laughing emojis with the Facebook post: “How did no one figure out I was gay!? I’m looking at my childhood pictures and I scream baby gay. How guys?!”
Harris served with the 545th Military Police Detachment. She worked with the man she identified as her attacker, but he serves with the Air Force.
On Feb. 8, Harris reported being sexually assaulted after attending a party in late January, according to a briefing Stickford received last month from Army investigators on base. She told a friend about the assault confidentially before officially reporting it, her mother said.
By the time Harris made her report, it was too late to collect a rape kit, Stickford said. But texts on her phone — which Harris gave to investigators when she reported the assault — were collected as evidence, she said.
Harris had previously considered her alleged attacker a friend, her mother said.
“I guess he was making comments to her, other soldiers told me,” she said. ” ‘You just don’t know what it’s like to have a real man. If you did, you wouldn’t be gay.’ “
After Harris made her report, the man was not confined, but a protective order required him to stay away from Harris.
Commanders took “immediate action” to put him in another duty location until an investigation was finished and “a determination of next steps could be made,” the Air Force said in a statement.
The man was taken off law enforcement and placed on administrative duty, base officials told Stickford.
‘I knew something was wrong’
The change in the young soldier was immediately apparent to her family.
Harris, who normally FaceTimed with her mother three or four times a week, became distant in February, barely returning her mother’s increasingly distressed text messages.
Stickford said she made multiple calls, starting with a national military suicide hotline, then the base family center, and then her daughter’s sergeant. In all the calls, she said she was worried that Harris was showing signs something was wrong.
Stickford said she got little if any follow-up. She feels like nobody took her seriously.
“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I just couldn’t get there fast enough.”
In late March, Harris texted a friend that she was thinking of suicide after the two of them fought, according to the Army briefing Stickford received. She was placed in mental health treatment and under orders not to possess a weapon.
“This man took her purity. She had never been with a man before. She lost her identity as a lesbian because of what he did,” Stickford said. “Then she lost her badge and her gun. No wonder she was distraught.”
By April 20, Harris started asking when she could buy a new firearm, base officials said during the briefing. Harris was allowed to go back to work in late April, at her own request, and got her Army-issued weapon back.
But then, despite the protective order, she ran into her alleged attacker in a hallway of a building during an April 29 training. It’s unclear what, if anything, was said during that encounter.
Base officials acknowledged a mistake was made, according to the May briefing Stickford received. It’s possible that communication was complicated by the fact that Harris was Army and her accused attacker was Air Force, base officials told her.
Harris had an “extremely emotional response” when she saw her alleged attacker and had to be escorted out of the building by her victim advocate, her mother said.
“I was told at a meeting in Anchorage she was very upset and went back to the office,” Stickford said, adding that the advocate told Harris she could go home for the day. “She said … ‘I don’t trust myself. Can I stay here with you instead?’ He let her stay the rest of the day.”
Three days later, on May 2, Harris bought a gun on base accompanied by a friend, another MP, base officials told Stickford. They intended to go register the weapon, as required, but Harris said she wanted to take a nap and her friend allowed her to take the gun back to her barracks room rather than put it in a secure location.
Harris typed a suicide note on her computer and printed it, base officials said. She also sent a separate text to someone on base saying, “I want to make sure everyone knows this was nobody’s fault.”
Harris was reported missing about an hour later, after efforts to contact her failed.
She was found dead in her vehicle, base officials told Stickford.
A spokesman for the 673rd Air Base Wing declined to make Harris’ sergeant available for an interview, citing the ongoing investigation.
In the suicide note, Harris named her alleged attacker, saying he “showed me how dark people are, how people could hurt others for pleasure.”
She praised others in her unit, and said her doctor and others weren’t to blame. She signed it, “My deepest apologies. Kaylie M. Harris.”
The Department of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations is investigating the alleged sexual assault, according to Air Force media operations chief Ann Stefanek.
As of this week, the investigation was still ongoing, Stefanek said. She did not respond to a question about why the case was still open four months after Harris reported the assault.
“Sexual assault and harassment of any kind are inconsistent with the Department of the Air Force’s core values,” Stefanek wrote in a statement earlier this month. “Allegations of sexual assault are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.”
Services available to military members in crisis on JBER include the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, Chaplain Corps, Mental Health Clinic professionals, Military and Family Life Counselors, Family Advocacy and a military member’s first sergeant or chain of command, according to Staff Sgt. Curt Beach, a spokesman for the 673rd.
The man Harris accused of assaulting her remains on base, officials said.
‘Still is a culture of disbelief’
Advocates for sexual assault survivors say the military still has a long way to go to address concerns about sexual assault reports and prompt follow-up and investigation.
Many cases go unreported, and those that are reported result in relatively few convictions, according to Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military. Just 4% of the 5,640 unrestricted reports of sexual assault from June 2019 to June 2020 were tried by court martial, and just 50 — less than 1% — of those involved someone convicted of a nonconsensual sex offense.
“The military talks a lot about suicide prevention and supporting survivors and LGBT troops, but their action rarely equals the words they use,” the group’s president, Don Christensen, told USA Today. “There still is a culture of disbelief when survivors come forward and an attitude that even if the survivor’s allegation is true, ‘they should just walk it off.’ Too many of these cases end in tragedy like this one, in part because of the military’s failure to keep offenders away from their victims.”
JBER was home to a 2014 scandal involving mishandled sexual assault and sexual harassment cases within the Alaska National Guard, though an audit released last year found the Guard units have since improved the way they handle such reports.
A bill pending in Congress would change the military’s handling of sexual assault cases, moving charging decisions for sex offenses in the military to an independent, trained group of military lawyers.
Stickford is trying to turn her grief into action. She wants a hate crimes article added to military law to protect LGBTQ troops.
Before entering the military, Harris worried about sexual assault and being treated differently because she was a lesbian, her mother said. When she mentioned her concerns to a recruiter, he reassured her by saying “we’re all family.”
Now her family believes there may have been “significant failures on the part of the military” that led to Harris’ death, said attorney Ben Beliles, who is representing them. That includes letting Harris come into contact with her alleged attacker and allowing her to buy a weapon and bring it back to her quarters.
Stickford said she has received more than a hundred messages since the USA Today story published.
An MP at Fort Hood sent her a patch that still had pieces of fabric on it. He told her he tore it from his uniform out of grief over what happened to Harris. People tell Stickford about their own children, some of whom died by suicide or suffered harassment and assault because of their sexual orientation.
They ask her to fight for their children because no one listened to them. She starts crying as she talks about that.
“I can’t save Kaylie. I can’t,” Stickford said. “But I know I can try to save others.”