SPRINGFIELD, Ohio (WDTN) — The family of a Springfield soldier has filed a lawsuit against the military in their daughter’s death, saying her suicide was triggered by a sexual assault that was the result of a hate crime.
Twenty-one-year-old U.S. Army Specialist Kaylie Harris joined the military to protect others, but her family says the military failed to protect her.
“A piece of us is gone that can’t be replaced,” says Kaylie’s father, Shawn Harris, as he vows to fight for his daughter nearly two years after her death. “Everybody’s sad. I’m not sad. I’m angry. I don’t have time to be sad.”
Kaylie was stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) in Anchorage, Alaska after completing basic training in February 2020 at Fort Leonard Wood in south central Missouri.
Kaylie was strong and tough, and her dream was to serve.
“Kaylie was — She was her own person. She was my strong-willed child. She was kind. She was a good-hearted kid,” describes Shawn.
On Jan. 21, 2021, Kaylie came out publicly on Facebook as a lesbian.
“We all knew, but most people in the Army didn’t know,” says Shawn.
Less than two weeks after coming out, her family says she was raped on base by a member of the U.S. Air Force.
2 NEWS’ Kelley King spoke with Kaylie’s mother in 2021. Carey Harris Stickford says her daughter struggled mentally and emotionally after the assault.
Kaylie didn’t tell her family what happened to her, but both Carey and Shawn noticed a change in their daughter in Feb. 2021. They say she became distant and started to pull away.
“She pretty much cut off all communication with us, which was highly unusual,” describes Shawn. “She stopped texting me. She stopped taking my calls.”
Carey, working as a psych nurse, says Kaylie’s behavior raised red flags. Concerned about her daughter, she called the Suicide Hotline and JBER to speak to someone in the Family Center in April 2021.
On May 2, 2021, Kaylie took her own life. Her family says her death was triggered by her sexual assault, as Kaylie detailed in a suicide note.
Kaylie’s family says what happened to her was a hate crime. They say when she came out as gay, it didn’t sit well with one member of the Special Forces with the U.S. Air Force who was stationed at JBER with her. Carey says Kaylie was initially friends with him, but when she revealed she was gay, he taunted her and had his friends ridicule her too.
In 2021, Carey told 2 NEWS’ Kelley King: “I guess he teased her about it a lot. You know, he would always say to her ‘You know what? You know Kaylie, it’s because you’re not really — you know, you’ve never been with a man before. That’s why you’re gay. That’s the reason.”
Carey says Kaylie did not report her sexual assault right away and waited until Feb. 8, 2021 to report the incident when she went to the hospital. According to Carey, Kaylie made the decision to get medical attention after she could no longer care for the physical injuries.
Kaylie first filled out a restricted report, then filed an unrestricted one.
She was given a victim advocate and a counselor to see weekly and went to every appointment.
2 NEWS’ Kelley King asked base officials about the help and services offered for anyone who reports an assault on base.
A response from JBER/673d Air Base Wing public affairs reads:
“There are a variety of services and support available to survivors of an assault regardless of whether they choose to formally report the assault or not. Any allegation of sexual assault is taken seriously and investigated to completion. Installation resources include, but are not limited to, their chain of command, base law enforcement, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Army Criminal Investigation Division, Behavioral Health Clinic, the chaplain corps, Military and Family Life Consultants, the DoD Safe Helpline, Family Advocacy Program, Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, and the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program. Domestic abuse victim advocates and legal services are also available. All DoD employees, including military and civilian personnel, are required to accomplish mandatory annual Sexual Assault and Prevention Response training.”
According to Kaylie’s mother, on March 24, 2021, Kaylie sent a text to a friend about suicidal thoughts she was having and went to the hospital to get help.
2 NEWS’ Kelley King asked about mental health resources available on base. JBER/673d Air Base Wing public affairs responded:
“Through the various resources and referral programs at JBER, individuals encountering mental health issues may choose a provider on or off the installation. The Behavioral Health Clinic, Family Advocacy and the Military and Family Readiness centers here offer individuals information regarding the different options for mental health providers. Military OneSource can provide up to 12 free sessions with a civilian counselor outside the installation. The Task Force True North program assigns mental health providers and religious support teams directly to active-duty Air Force units, and Military and Family Life Consultants are assigned to Army units.”
During Kaylie’s hospital visit, she was questioned, and she was sent home, according to her mother. She was placed under a “do not arm,” meaning she could not carry a weapon, and her badge was temporarily taken. To get them back, she had to go through training.
Carey says for that training, Kaylie was placed in the exact same building as her accused attacker. Her mother says she applied for a restraining order against him. Shawn says they were not supposed to be near each other.
“There was a protection order that was not followed. They ended up at the same training facility at the same time,” says Shawn.
Her family says the encounter with her accused attacker triggered trauma, and she reached out to her victim advocate.
2 NEWS’ Kelley King received a response from a spokesperson from JBER in 2021. The spokesperson writes, “SPC Harris did not have a Military Protective Order prohibiting contact with the accused.”
After the encounter, her family says a few days later, Kaylie was re-evaluated, given her badge and weapon back and given permission to buy another weapon.
Carey says no one made sure Kaylie registered the new weapon she bought and took her own life with.
Kaylie’s alleged attacker was never charged, and Shawn says he was transferred to Florida in 2022.
Kaylie’s family says her case, and the entire investigation, was grossly mishandled.
Shawn says the U.S. Air Force didn’t start its investigation into Kaylie’s alleged sexual assault until after she died.
“How can these people tell me that they didn’t do anything wrong? If they didn’t do anything wrong, there wouldn’t be an issue. we wouldn’t be sitting here,” questions Shawn. “Somebody needs to be held accountable.”
Shawn says they were supposed to have a meeting with the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force to discuss the findings of their investigations and why Kaylie’s suspected attacker wasn’t being prosecuted. He says that meeting was supposed to take place in December 2021, and officials were going to come to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. That meeting never happened.
“They just ghosted us. And then they wouldn’t even respond to us anymore,” says Shawn.
Shawn says when they requested her medical records, they got them mixed up with someone else’s and sent them part of the wrong records.
Shawn also says evidence was lost in Kaylie’s case.
“All the evidence is gone. It was lost in transit,” states Shawn. “All of it! If that would’ve been here in the real world, heads would’ve rolled. People would be going to jail.”
The family says they’ve been given the run-around by military officials, and they continue fighting a vicious cycle of their questions going unanswered.
Regarding the sexual assault investigation, 2 NEWS’ Kelley King received a statement from Linda Card, HQ Air Force Office of Investigations Public Affairs that reads in part, “The sexual assault investigation closed in October 2021 and the final report was provided to the family at that time.”
“I have a recording of the phone conversation with a member of the CID saying that her suicide was caused by her assault. I mean, how much plainer can you be than that?” questions Shawn.
In terms of Kaylie’s death investigation, the Department of the Army Criminal Investigation Division Public Affairs Office sent 2 NEWS’ Kelley King a statement that reads:
“The Department of the Army Criminal Investigation Division’s investigation into the death of Spc. Kaylie Harris was closed Oct. 5, 2021. The Alaska State Medical Examiner listed her cause of death as a gunshot wound to the head and reflected the manner of death as suicide. Based on the totality of the information gathered during this extensive investigation, the Army CID investigation concluded there was no reason to believe that the circumstances of Spc. Kaylie Harris’ death were in any way criminal in nature.”
In October 2022, the family obtained an attorney and filed a wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit against the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force.
2 NEWS’ Kelley King reached out to officials at JBER regarding the lawsuit. They say they do not respond to ongoing litigation per department policy. When she asked about the procedures and protocols in place to protect those on base, she received a joint response from JBER/673d Air Base Wing and 11th Airborne Division public affairs offices. They responded:
“JBER and units across the installation continuously make investments to improve and expand access to care and resources for service members, dependents, and all members of the community. In 2022, the 11th Airborne Division here at JBER established the Mission 100 campaign. The Mission 100 campaign strives to ensure 100% of our Soldiers feel connected. Being in contact with our Soldiers is not the same as being connected with our Soldiers. Mission 100 also dictates 100% of our Soldiers get a wellness counseling from Military and Family Life Counselors, better connecting them with the education and resources needed. This applies all the way from the commanding general to the newest private on base.”
Just as Kaylie fought for her country, her family continues fighting for her.
The lawsuit was filed with the Department of Defense. The family says they will have to see what happens with the suit and will likely know something in April.
The family says they will also be working with Minority Veterans of America to draft a bill designed to protect other military members and to instill hate crime regulations in the Armed Forces.
“We didn’t think it would happen to our [family] but it did. You know? And then, then you feel the shatter of your heart,” says Jennifer Harris, Kaylie’s stepmother. “There’s no process for sexual assault victims. There’s no protection for them.”
The family is still in the very early stages of working with Minority Veterans of America, and they’re looking for congressional backing of the bill.
“I refuse to let what happened to her happen in vain because I don’t want it to happen to anyone else,” says Shawn.