After her daughter’s death by suicide, a Springfield mother advocates for hate crime penalties in the military

Spec. Kaylie Harris to be honored at vigil in downtown Springfield

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

A story that Carey Harris Stickford cherishes of her daughter, Kaylie Harris, deals with the young Springfield native’s training in the U.S. Army.

Before approaching the finish line during running segments, Harris -- who was always in the lead -- would circle back to those tired runners bringing up the rear, encouraging them to keep going.

“She could’ve been done,” she said. “But that’s who she was.”

Spec. Harris, who was serving in the military police, died by suicide at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage on May 2 at the age of 21.

Her family received news of her death on May 3, but Stickford found out later through a note left by her daughter and through conversations with her daughter’s friends that Harris reported being raped by a fellow servicemember months prior to her death.

Days before to the alleged rape, Harris came out publicly as gay in a social media post. Harris’ alleged assailant was someone Harris considered a friend, Stickford said. She believes the rape was a reaction to her daughter coming out.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

“It defined her because that was her sexuality; it was a part of her. But the Army defined her more,” Stickford said. She noted that Harris would tell people that she was “married to the Army,” even ordering a ring to symbolize her commitment to service.

“What this man did to her… it was only because of a piece of her,” Stickford said.

The public affairs office at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson did not return a request for comment about the death of Harris or the investigation into her report of sexual assault.

Harris’ family is hosting a vigil in her honor at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Commons Park in downtown Springfield, as a way to celebrate her life and shed light on her story. During her life, Harris was a student at Kenton Ridge High School, an athlete, and an avid 4-Her.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Kaylie and our love, thoughts, and prayers are with all of her family and friends,” said Kenton Ridge Principal John Hill in an email. “Kaylie was active in our music programs and a brave young woman who loved her country, stood up for what she believed in, and proudly served in the U.S. Army. We were honored to know her and to have her as part of our Kenton Ridge family.”

Stickford noted that Harris’ faith in God was very important to her. Members from area churches are expected to attend the vigil to speak and lead prayer.

Harris’ mother said that since the story of her daughter was told nationally through news organizationssuch as USA Today and Vice News, thousands of servicemembers have reached out to her via email, Facebook messages, or even letters to tell her that they had similar experiences to her daughter’s.

“There was one day where I had 72 emails from people,” Stickford said. “Every single soldier who I have spoken to… every one of them has told me they didn’t have a voice.”

An American nonprofit global policy think tank that offers research and analysis to the United States Armed Forces, Rand Corp., released a report this year estimated about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 16 men serving in the military experience sexual harassment.

Stickford said she has been working to be a voice for those servicemembers, advocating for the passage of hate crime legislation to further penalize acts of violence in the military, specifically to protect LGBTQ troops.

Similar protective legislation, the I am Vanessa Guillén Act, has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Guillen was serving in the U.S. Army at a Texas base when she was killed by another service member.

The act would change the military’s response to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault by making sexual harassment a standalone offense within the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The legislation would also move prosecution decisions of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases out of the military chain of command, something Stickford said is necessary.

The mother noted that when sexual assaults happen in the military, soldiers can either file restrictive or nonrestrictive reports. Restrictive reporting occurs when a soldier reports an assault to medical staff. Nonrestrictive reporting flags commanding officers to the alleged act of violence.

Stickford told the News-Sun that her daughter originally reported through the restricted channel, but ultimately, she had to file a nonrestrictive report in order to get an order of protection filed against her assailant.

Stickford, who is also a nurse, said the mental health resources offered to her daughter following the report of rape were inadequate and acted as “a bandaid.” She explained that Harris had what is called a Special Victim Advocate. Harris, like other servicemembers who report assault, was also assigned a social-worker, who according to Stickford was not trained in sexual assault trauma.

“She was going to therapy, but didn’t have the right tools, the right resources,” she said.

The investigation into Harris’ report of rape was slated to be completed by the end of July, according to Stickford. Stickford had not received an update from the U.S. Army in regard to the investigation by Friday afternoon.

In Stickford’s living room lies several pictures of Harris, both as a dedicated Army soldier and as a smiling, goofy young woman. Above these snapshots of Harris hang a row of sympathy cards.

“I’m not ready to take them down, I’m not there,” Stickford said. “They give me encouragement.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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