Cailin Foster participates in basic cadet training at the Air Force Academy in 2017.

Cailin Foster participates in basic cadet training at the Air Force Academy in 2017. (Provided by Colleen Foster)

By the time Cailin Foster told her parents about the problems that she faced since her freshman year at the Air Force Academy, it was too late.

Even then, she left a cryptic message that forced them to unravel the threads of the last four years of her life.

“Do all that you can to make sure I am the last one,” the 22-year-old wrote in a note to Gary and Colleen Foster.

Sometime after midnight on Nov. 7, 2021, the newly commissioned second lieutenant ended her life.

When her parents found the note, they knew nothing of the rape that she endured at the academy, which she had reported to a cadet in her chain of command with no results. They didn’t know two of her roommates also had reported being raped. They didn’t know academy officials knew and did not intervene when Foster began grappling with thoughts of suicide more than a year earlier.

“[The academy] broke her,” Gary Foster said. “We just want to prevent the next Cailin from being victimized.”

Gary Foster, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel living near Colorado Springs, Colo., where the academy is located, said he tried to work with campus leaders. He believed someone would listen to him. Academy leaders weren’t just his former co-workers, they were friends who attended the same church and had children and relatives playing on the same sports teams.

Cailin Foster with her parents Gary and Colleen Foster following a ceremony to commission her as a second lieutenant in the Air Force in 2021.

Cailin Foster with her parents Gary and Colleen Foster following a ceremony to commission her as a second lieutenant in the Air Force in 2021. (Photo provided by Colleen Foster)

After meeting with the commandant and the superintendent in May 2022, the Fosters realized approaching this in what they thought was “the right way” wasn’t working. Disappointed and desperate to be heard, the Fosters on Oct. 27 filed two claims against the Air Force. The claims allege the service failed to protect Cailin Foster from sexual assault and failed to treat her mental illness. Each claim listed damages of $20 million, according to case documents obtained by Stars and Stripes.

“We did not want it to come to this point, but they have just pushed our hand,” Gary Foster said.

The claims were filed against the Air Force under the Federal Tort Claims Act and the Military Claims Act. A claim is a necessary first step under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows citizens to file civil lawsuits against the government. Filings under the Military Claims Act are not permitted to move forward as a lawsuit, though there is an ongoing effort in Congress to change this. 

The Air Force would not confirm or deny receipt of the Fosters’ claims. Officials also declined to answer any questions related to Cailin Foster or any of its policies on sexual assault reporting and suicide prevention. A spokesperson cited an ongoing review by the service inspector general, which was triggered by Gary Foster contacting the Defense Department inspector general’s hotline.

Concerns about the safety of cadets at the military’s three service academies have gained intermittent attention from Congress and the public in the past two decades — as have concerns across the military about preventing sexual assault and harassment among troops and curbing deaths from suicide.

In March, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called for an in-person evaluation of all three campuses because a Pentagon survey found student-reported assaults were up 18%. The Air Force Academy had 75 allegations of sexual assault in the 2021-22 school year, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., had 61 and the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., accounted for 70, according to the Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies.

However, only 21 sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy have been criminally investigated in the last five years, according to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, which has an agreement with the academy to investigate crimes on campus. Four of those led to criminal charges.

The results of Austin’s mandated review were released in August and uncovered a need to improve senior leadership and end toxic practices such as hazing. It also proposed bringing prevention education into the classroom.

Separately, Austin formed review commissions for sexual assault and suicide prevention. Both have returned recommendations to the Pentagon and implementation is ongoing. The 101 recommendations for suicide prevention will take until 2030 to implement, according to the Defense Department.

Repeating the past

Gary Foster graduated in 1990 from the Air Force Academy and worked there following a 2003 congressional review triggered by an alarming number of sexual assaults among cadets. That led to prevention and safety reforms known as the Agenda for Change.

When the Fosters met with academy leaders last year — before Austin ordered his on-site review — they itemized how leaders could return to the Agenda for Change and protect cadets. Their recommendations were ignored, the couple said.

“All we wanted to do was work with the academy. I have intimate knowledge of how the place works,” Gary Foster said. “The Agenda for Change was supposed to stop it and fix all this stuff. Every three years, they get new leadership, and they go back to their old ways of doing things, things get forgotten, and they’re just negligent. They just will not protect their cadets.”

The Fosters took their concerns to Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel who has identified herself as a victim of military sexual trauma and advocated for reform. The senator wrote to Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the superintendent at the Air Force Academy.

Clark, who became superintendent during Cailin’s final year at the academy, wrote to Ernst that the academy conducted an internal review following Cailin’s death and found some changes were needed to policy and operating procedures. The academy has since changed how leaders monitor cadets considered at-risk and created a program to better connect new officers assigned to the same bases after graduation to prevent isolation.

“I cannot emphasize enough how seriously I take the health and well-being of every cadet,” Clark wrote in the letter dated Sept. 14, 2022. “Our entire [academy] team must ensure we are doing everything possible to prevent future tragedies.”

(U.S. Air Force Academy)

Isolation and fear of reprisal

The Fosters’ first inclination that Cailin was struggling at the academy came in spring 2020 during her junior year at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the Army and Navy academies sent students home during March 2020 to finish coursework online, the Air Force kept its seniors on campus and spread them out into single occupancy dorm rooms with minimal in-person interactions.

Two students, Cadets 1st Class Joseph Thornton and William Gorczynski, died on campus within days of each other in late March, prompting the academy to bump up graduation to April.

But the academy didn’t launch a mental health response team after the deaths or seek out cadets who might have been close to the dead students for heightened observation — something Gary Foster said the academy did when it came to coronavirus contact tracing.

In Clark’s letter to Ernst, he wrote that the academy chose to provide access to mental health professionals for two months and cadets could participate anonymously.

The Fosters didn’t know Cailin had been in a close, sometimes romantic relationship with Gorczynski, who died by suicide. One of Cailin’s friends told Air Force investigators that Cailin had said Gorczynski found Cailin at the academy trying to hang herself and saved her, according to the report about her death conducted by the service’s Office of Special Investigations. The names of most people interviewed were redacted from the 124-page report.

Cailin told that friend and others that she had been raped her freshman year by a sophomore but didn’t want to report it because she had been drinking and thought she could be punished because she was only 18 at the time.

A friend reported Cailin’s rape after her death and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office investigated. The district attorney declined to prosecute.

That 48-page investigation report included a text message that Cailin sent to a fellow cadet who was first in line in her chain of command. That cadet should have reported the assault under academy policy, Gary Foster said.

During an interview with investigators, the cadet said he hadn’t heard about the assault directly from Cailin. He heard about it from another cadet. He said he discussed with his commander that there was a cadet harassing Cailin and a no-contact order was put into place between the perpetrator and Cailin, according to the county’s report.

The personal injury claim states “multiple cadets reported [the alleged perpetrator] standing in the entry of Cailin’s dormitory quarters, blocking her from exiting. He then walked into her room, stood directly in front of her and placed his fingers on Cailin’s lips, rubbing them for some time while he licked his own lips. This was nonconsensual and was disturbing to the multiple people [who] witnessed it.”

The alleged perpetrator resigned from the academy in spring 2018 before he was involuntarily disenrolled for poor academic performance, according to the county’s report. Investigators found multiple letters of reprimand in his cadet file for honor, academic and physical fitness violations, and no-contact orders for Cailin and five other cadets.

Keeping up appearances

Meredith Jones, Cailin’s friend and former roommate, said Cailin was good at compartmentalizing her life. It didn’t surprise her that Cailin kept her assault and her relationship with Gorczynski from her parents.

“Even as her roommate I didn’t really know a lot of the things that went on and I lived with her day-in, day-out for a year. She was very good at keeping things hidden,” said Jones, who was a foreign student at the academy and was not commissioned into the U.S. Air Force. She, too, said she was sexually assaulted at the academy and, after she reported it, the academy used Jones’ foreign-national status to exclude her from victim resources and discourage her from pursuing criminal charges against her perpetrator.

When cadets returned to campus in the fall of 2020, Cailin’s mental health continued to decline. She injured her back during a physical fitness test and failed. Though a medical professional confirmed the injury, the failed test resulted in Cailin losing her position as manager of the women’s tennis team. Jones, who was captain of the team, said the athletics department unfairly handled the situation.

Cailin Foster as an Air Force Academy cadet in August 2019.

Cailin Foster as an Air Force Academy cadet in August 2019. (Provided by Colleen Foster)

“Cailin was an amazing manager for the first three years,” Jones said. “It was pretty extreme, in my opinion, and it definitely took a toll on Cailin.”

In October 2020, a cadet told academy leaders that Cailin mentioned having thoughts of suicide, according to the Air Force death investigation report. Leaders spoke to lawyers about a command-directed evaluation but decided to let Cailin schedule her own mental health appointment. Discussion of Cailin’s mental state reached all the way to Maj. Gen. Michele Edmondson, then the commandant of cadets, according to the report.

Edmondson declined to answer questions about how she managed the cadet at-risk list because she left the academy to command the 2nd Air Force at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

Cailin was placed on a list of at-risk cadets, and other cadets were ordered to watch Cailin for the next 24 hours to make certain that she did not harm herself. She was encouraged to schedule weekly visits with a chaplain.

Roughly two months later, Gorczynski’s parents reached out to the academy and Cailin directly about concerning messages that Cailin had sent to their dead son’s social media accounts, according to the report.

“If anyone deserved to kill themselves it’s me not you. I am so conflicted because I am so scared. All the time. And the truth is, I don’t want help from other people. The only thing that can save me is God,” Cailin wrote in one message found by Gorczynski’s parents, who were unaware of any relationship between the two cadets until after their son died.

Cailin told her friends that she felt guilty about Gorczynski’s death because she saw the warning signs and didn’t tell anyone.

“I have felt so unbelievably guilty since then and have been a mess,” she texted a friend.

One documented appointment

The only documented mental health appointment in Cailin’s medical records is dated April 1, 2021, six months after the first reports to academy leaders that she was having thoughts of suicide. Her parents said it’s unclear whether she attended in person because it was the same day that the academy placed Cailin in seven days of isolation because of possible close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.

Later in April, Cailin called the clinic again after the officer directly responsible for her insisted she make weekly appointments. During the call, Cailin denied needing help, and there were no other interactions documented, according to the death investigation report.

The report is unclear about Cailin’s removal from the at-risk cadet list or who made the decision. Clark wrote to Ernst that the review into the Fosters’ concerns has since caused them to change how removals are done to improve accountability.

Roughly two dozen cadets were on the list during the spring semester in the past five years, he wrote. Those listed at-risk specifically for mental health were not tracked, but now are. To better track who removes cadets from the list, Clark said the process has moved from each cadet group to the commandant.

Gary Foster managed the list when he worked at the academy and said this is exactly how it was handled in his time. At some point, someone must have decided to decentralize the list.

“That is just a shame. The commandant is in charge of the safety and well-being and training of cadets. If they decentralized it to the group commanders who are not trained for any of this, now you have four different failure points all doing different standards,” he said. “They blew it, and they know they blew it, and they won’t hold anybody accountable.”

Moving on

Cailin earned a degree in mechanical engineering and moved on to the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where she was the only second lieutenant reporting directly to a colonel, Gary Foster said. She was also just a short drive from Gorczynski’s gravesite, which she visited, and his parents, whom she visited at least three times, according to the Air Force report.

Cailin complained to her parents that her boss bullied her, though a command-directed investigation after her death cleared the colonel of wrongdoing. Cailin also said she felt isolated and alone because she had no peers within her unit and had to work from home most days. She began taking classes toward a master’s degree at the University of Dayton to keep busy.

Though she told others that she was adjusting and improving, Cailin watched 59 videos on YouTube about suicide, near death and heaven in the month before she died, according to the death investigation. Other past searches included, “he broke up with me by killing himself,” suicide spiritual examples, surviving military sexual assault and death.

In the hours before Cailin died, she sent two more messages to Gorczynski’s Snapchat account. The last one said, “We are all meant to die eventually, so why is it so hard?”

With everything that Cailin’s parents have learned since her death, they said her final note continues to haunt them and motivates them to force change because their daughter asked them to “make sure I am the last one.”

Though it’s vague, Colleen Foster said it must be about the sexual assault and the lack of support she felt from the Air Force Academy.

“Frankly, I’m just afraid that it’s going to happen to somebody else,” she said. “Another family does not need to go through this. This was fully preventable, and they failed on every single measure.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, dial 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention and Crisis Hotline.

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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