I Can’t Let It Go

I suppose you arrived here as a TLQ listener. Or maybe someone shared the link. Maybe you follow me online somewhere. Or you’ve happened upon this page by accident. In any case, while I appreciate you being here and giving our show a shot (hopefully), I may end up disappointing you. As I built the site around the TLQ Podcast, I had a few ideas for a celebratory first post. Then I read this morning’s newspaper. On the front page, above the fold on the right side, was this headline:

“Family: Death is hate crime / Soldier took her life after alleged rape”

Fuck. There went the next 15 minutes. I was already seething as I read the first couple paragraphs, wondering what military leadership would say about yet another suicide among the active duty ranks. To make it worse, I soon learned this was yet another example of a young soldier dying after a string of leadership failures. In this case, Specialist Kaylie Harris was reportedly assaulted by a fellow military police officer and succumbed to the combined pain of the incident and its aftermath by taking her own life with a pistol she bought with a friend on the same day.

Spc. Harris’ mother, who still lives in her daughter’s Ohio hometown, told the USAToday reporter that her daughter had come out as a lesbian as a high school senior. Despite early concerns that she would suffer discrimination in the Army, Kaylie was set on joining. Her recruiter apparently assured her that such discrimination isn’t a problem any longer. Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in uniform would know such an assurance isn’t merely misleading, it’s irresponsible. Nevertheless, Kaylie enlisted and earned her dream job–military police–before moving to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richarson near Anchorage, AK. Less than one year into her enlistment, according to reports (the investigation is on-going), she was assaulted.

As I shared in a Facebook post drawing attention to the story and a recent article I published on Medium, what struck me most about the Harris family’s tragic loss of their daughter wasn’t whether it’s appropriate to add hate crime language to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Neither was it the idea that an as-yet charged individual should be jailed while law enforcement gathers evidence. What struck me straight away was an apparent absence of the simplest response anyone can provide to someone thinking about killing themselves: never leave them alone.

As an Air Force veteran, I completed periodic “training” on suicide awareness and prevention. The efficacy of these sessions is debatable, though I can’t help but remember an acronym drilled into us at every session. Act-Care-Escort (ACE) was a mainstay of suicide awareness discussions throughout my time on active duty. I was quick to dismiss (in my post) the “Act” and “Care” provisions, since it’s impossible who was in a position and willing to do either. But it seems clear there were several people in a position to “Escort” and stay with Kaylie while she struggled. The response from her leadership is more or less standard, though the initial measures don’t seem complete–Harris is returned to normal duty, including while armed, after encountering the accused assailant during a training session–in spite of an active “no-contact” order intended to keep the two separated. On the day she bought the gun that she’d use to end her life, she shopped with a friend and fellow soldier. The friend reminded her about registration requirements, then left her alone to “take a nap.” Harris was dead soon thereafter.

The Army’s “ACE” memory guide. Available here.

It’s tough for me to find the right words. I didn’t know Spc. Kaylie Harris. Only her family can know the deepest pain associated with her loss. At the same time, she’s the newest name on a long list of devoted men and women who gave themselves to a cause bigger than themselves that ultimately failed them. Every service member who enters active duty does so as a volunteer, many risking their lives and livelihoods by choice. Even with husbands, wives, and children left behind. They also sign up to follow leaders invested in the team’s success. In each individual’s success. And in the core values each military branch presents to the world as their guiding light. I can’t help but wonder where those leaders are now. And where they’re hiding. The military is charged with solving some of our country’s most complex challenges, not least of which is the planning of operations against adversaries investing mightily in meeting–and exceeding–America’s previous monopoly on advanced capabilities. That certainly takes some effort and attention away from other priorities. But what can be a higher priority than the safety and strength of our individual members? What matters more than diving into a problem that has plagued the military for decades and serves only to erode trust between young enlisted members and senior officers? Evidently there’s a lot. We spend billions developing and fielding new weapons systems, millions paying for the promotions, travel, and movement of senior officers and their families, and millions more on flashy advertising campaigns to entice new recruits. Yet we’ve relegated “training” on suicide awareness, and sexual assault prevention and response, to short-staffed offices filled with volunteers (in some cases) and computer-based modules. It shouldn’t shock anyone that we’ve lost yet another person to a combination of fratricidal crime and suicide.

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