Content warning: This story mentions suicide and sexual assault.
The memory of Kaylie Harris in an airport last year, staring at her plane ticket to Alaska, is so vivid for her mom Carey Harris Stickford.
“I said, ‘What are you looking at?’” Stickford recalled. “And she goes, ‘My dream.’ Sorry, I don’t mean to cry. ‘My dream. I’m getting to fulfill my dream. Not only am I a military police officer, but I’m going to the one place I’ve wanted to be.’”
Just after graduating high school in Ohio, Harris joined the U.S. Army. She went through training to become a military police officer. And then she got stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. Her top pick.
But, just over a year later, on May 3 at 6:40 a.m., her mom’s doorbell rang in Ohio.
“I opened it,” Stickford said. “And it was two chaplains from the Army. And the first thing I said to them was, ‘My daughter’s dead. She killed herself. Why didn’t you call me back?’”
Pvt. 1st Class Kaylie Harris died by suicide on JBER on May 2. She was 21.
What Stickford learned after Harris’ death — through the military, her daughter’s friends and what her daughter left behind — stunned her.
Stickford said her daughter had reported to the military that she was sexually assaulted by an airman on JBER in late January — 10 days after she came out as a lesbian on Facebook.
Now, Stickford is telling the story of her daughter’s death to highlight what she sees as major lapses in the military’s response. And she wants changes to how the military handles sexual assault investigations, mental health and harassment of LGBTQ troops. It also comes amid a national spar over whether to overhaul the military justice system.
“I can’t bring Kaylie back,” Stickford said. “But I can make sure that what happened to Kaylie doesn’t happen to somebody else. That’s my goal.”
‘How many alarms’
USA Today was among the first publications to report on Harris’ death, describing it as “a confluence of currents that have ripped the military for decades: sexual assault, suicide and integrating LGBTQ troops.”
The issues are particularly pervasive in Alaska — a state with a high rate of sexual assaults and also a high rate of suicides, including among the soldiers stationed here. USA Today reported that the suicide rate among soldiers in Alaska appears to be nearly four times higher than the general U.S. rate.
In the first five months of 2021, six soldiers stationed in Alaska, including Harris, died by apparent suicide, according to the newspaper’s investigation.
Stickford said she could tell something was wrong with her daughter earlier this year. She just couldn’t figure out what it was.
The mother and daughter had been really close. Then, suddenly, Harris became distant, said Stickford. Not calling. Not responding to messages. Forgetting family birthdays.
“She was supposed to get ready for her sister’s wedding. She wouldn’t respond to getting a dress, things like that,” said Stickford. “She had more of an angry tone to her like, ‘You just need to leave me alone.’”
At the end of March, Stickford became increasingly worried. She started making calls to try to get help: To a military suicide hotline, to JBER’s family center, to her daughter’s commanding officer. She got little response.
“How many alarms can I yell through from Ohio to Alaska?” Stickford said.
An ongoing investigation
As Stickford retraced Harris’ steps, thousands of miles away in Alaska, she said she found a series of red flags that the military failed to act on.
She learned that her daughter’s accused attacker had harassed her in front of others in the past.
“What I’ve gathered from her peer troops is that this airman would give her a hard time saying all, you know, ‘Harris, you’re a lesbian because you’ve never been with a real man,’” said Stickford.
The military isn’t disclosing much publicly about the reported sexual assault and is handling the investigation internally.
In a written statement, JBER spokesman Major Michael Hertzog II said the alleged sexual assault is still under investigation, and no charges have been filed.
He said JBER is mourning the loss of Harris.
“We are fully committed to the investigative process, and we will not rest until that process is complete,” said his statement.
According to military officials, the airman accused of assaulting Harris remains on base.
‘I want to protect’
Stickford is angry.
In the past couple months, she said, she learned that the military had put Harris in mental health treatment and under a do-not-arm order in late March after she told a friend she had thoughts of suicide.
And then, on April 27, as the military continued to investigate the reported sexual assault, Stickford said Harris encountered her alleged attacker again, during a training on base. They were both assigned to the same building.
Stickford said she doesn’t know what happened between the two of them then.
“I was told that she was in extreme distress and had to be physically removed from the building,” Stickford said.
Still, she said, her daughter was allowed to go back to her military police job at the end of that week, and to have a gun again.
She bought one on base two days later and took her life.
“Something happened in that hallway that made her decide that I can no longer live in this world after trying so hard,” Stickford said. “And that’s what was so heartbreaking to me.”
Harris named her alleged attacker in a suicide note.
Hertzog said after the sexual assault report, commanders placed the accused in another duty location and issued a Military Protective Order. He said the military is investigating if any contact occurred during that protective order.
Stickford said she believes her daughter would still be alive if the military took her sexual assault report and her declining mental health more seriously.
She wants her daughter’s story known.
“I want to protect. That’s the mother instinct in me. I am a mama bear, you know, and now I don’t have her to protect anymore,” she said. “But I’m going to do everything I can to protect anybody I can.”
Stickford also wants changes to military law. She wants it to include hate crimes to protect LGBTQ troops.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, there are many resources to help: Contact the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-4357 or text 4help to 839863. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. View warning signs of suicide from the National Institute of Mental Health.