A lesbian soldier has tragically taken her own life following an alleged sexual assault by a military colleague days after she came out on Facebook.
Private first class Kaylie Harris was just 21 years old when she died by suicide on 2 May at a military base in Anchorage, Alaska. She’d been a soldier less than a year.
In the days that followed her death, Kaylie’s mother, Carey Harris, learned her daughter had filed a sexual assault complaint against a fellow service member, 10 days after she came out a lesbian on Facebook.
“I asked them, ‘Did this man know that she was a lesbian?'” Carey Harris told USA Today. “And they said, ‘Oh, absolutely… everybody knew.'”
Kaylie came out as a lesbian during her senior year in high school but disclosed her sexuality on social media for the first time on 21 January.
“How did no one figure out I was gay!? I’m looking at my childhood pictures and I scream baby gay. How guys?!” she posted with laughing emojis.
The following week on 30 January, Kaylie was allegedly attacked by an Air Force airman she had considered a friend, according to the family’s lawyer Ben Beliles.
As the military investigated the assault Kaylie’s mental health rapidly deteriorated and she began distancing herself from her loved ones.
She expressed thoughts of suicide and self-harm to her superiors, who gave her counselling, placed her under a do-not-arm order and issued a protective order to keep her alleged attacker away from her. But it wasn’t enough.
A shocking military “misstep” saw Kaylie taken off the do-not-arm list and allowed her to come into contact with her alleged attacker once more at a training session, USA Today reports. Both of them remained on the base in spite of the order designed to keep them apart.
“We want to get to the bottom of how the military allowed that to happen,” Beliles said.
The encounter left Kaylie reeling – and within a few days, she’d bought a handgun and written a suicide note.
In it she directly named her alleged attacker, saying he “showed me how dark people are, how people could hurt others for pleasure”.
“There are so many points of failure,” said Jennifer Dane of the Modern Military Association, an advocacy group for LGBT+ troops and veterans. “This is another example of leadership failure. It’s awful.”
Kaylie had previously discussed concerns about sexual assault in the military and the military’s treatment of LGBT+ troops, her family said.
According to Don Christensen of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military, Kaylie’s case is a part of a larger culture.
“The military talks a lot about suicide prevention and supporting survivors and LGBT troops, but their action rarely equals the words they use,” said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for sexual assault victims in the military.
“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.”
While the accused’s motivations aren’t known, the Harris family believes she was assaulted because she was a lesbian, and that she would still be alive today if the military had taken the report more seriously.
She took an oath to die for our country, not to be taken out by a fellow soldier.
The military’s code of justice currently has no hate crime laws, but Kaylie’s mother is now fighting for change to protect LGBT+ troops.
She insists the alleged attacker should be charged with a hate crime, arguing that it was the assault that triggered Kaylie’s suicide. While a hate crime conviction is unlikely as Kaylie cannot serve as a witness, the family is determined to seek justice.
“She took an oath to die for our country,” Carey Harris said. “Not to be taken out by a fellow soldier.”
In a statement Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek confirmed that the alleged assault is still under investigation.
She noted that commanders immediately placed the man accused of assaulting Harris in another duty location pending completion of the investigation and issued a military protective order to ensure “there was no contact between PFC Harris and the airman,” though both remained on the base near downtown Anchorage.
The airman declined to comment, Stefanek said, and decisions remain pending regarding any possible charges.
“Sexual assault and harassment of any kind are inconsistent with the department of the Air Force’s core values,” Stefanek said in a statement.
The US Army added in a statement that Harris’ death shows the need to prevent and respond to sexual assault.
“No member of the Army team should be subjected to sexual harassment, sexual assault, or associated retaliation,” a spokesperson said.
Suicide is preventable. Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org), or Mind on 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk). Readers in the US are encouraged to contact the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.
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