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Family files wrongful death claim against AFA; alleges academy ignored reports of sexual assault

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- “Do all that you can to make sure I am the last one.”

This was the note Cailin Foster, a recent graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, left her parents after she died by suicide in November 2021. For the last two years, Gary and Colleen Foster investigated her death and found what they believe are failures by the Academy in addressing Cailin’s sexual assault claims and mental health.

Nearly 20 years ago, Gary Foster, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, did the work to prevent situations, like his own daughter’s, from happening.

“I was in charge of rewriting all the policies in the cadet wing," Gary said. "I also ran dis-enrollment, so I saw the good, I saw the bad, and I saw the really ugly.”

In 2003, the Air Force Academy was at the center of a sexual assault scandal after an anonymous email was sent to military leaders claiming sexual assaults were being ignored by Academy leadership.

Lt. Gen. John Rosa, who became superintendent at the Academy in July 2003, said in a press release statement at the time, "We realized that what we had here is a culture and a climate that tolerates sexual assault and sexual harassment. So if you have an environment that basically tolerates sexual harassment, you have to change that."

This led to a congressional review. Gary Foster said he helped create prevention and safety reforms referred to as the “Agenda for Change.”

According to that 2003 press release from the Academy, 165 "action items" were identified in the "Agenda for Change." At the time of the October 2003 press release, 140 of those items had been adopted.

“One big challenge in introducing changes at the Academy is to make sure they are backed up by lasting programs,” Rosa said in the 2003 press release, "so that we don't find ourselves 10 years down the road in the same or similar circumstances."

Twenty years after the “Agenda for Change,” the Air Force Academy and other military service academies are arguably in worse circumstances, according to recent reports by the Department of Defense.

“It's just so frustrating, when 20 years ago you tried to fix all this stuff and you see the exact same mistakes that they made," Gary said. "They backslid."

"They failed every single measure that the Agenda for Change was supposed to fix,” said Colleen Foster, Cailin's mom.

An August report from the DOD shows that 21.4 percent of academy female and 4.4 percent of academy males said they were victims of unwanted sexual contact in 2022, both all-time highs.

An Air Force Academy spokesman says that the Department of the Air Force has made recent updates to the personnel in the prevention workforce, expanding the violence prevention program and integrating its efforts across helping and support agencies. The collaborative efforts allow teams to better address risk and protective factors impacting community wellness with early prevention and intervention efforts. The U.S. Air Force Academy Superintendent’s "Let’s Be Clear" campaign targeted these efforts with additional staff and resources for Academy cadets and personnel. 

But this trend isn’t just at the Air Force Academy. Another report from the DOD this year shows 206 sexual assaults were reported during the 2021-2022 academic program year at military service academies, also a record high.

Foster was among the rising trends. Her family said she was raped during her freshman year at the Air Force Academy. They said she reported the sexual assault but nothing was done. For the rest of her time at the Academy, her family said she struggled with mental health and thoughts of suicide but received little support.

Her first assignment after graduating from the Academy was at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Her family said her mental health continued to decline when she died by suicide in November 2021.

The Fosters said the past two years have been difficult. Her family never knew the trauma she had experienced during her years at the Academy until they started looking into her death following the cryptic note she left.

"I have to honor her," Colleen said. "I have to be the voice for other parents, for other moms out there. I could never live to see another family member suffer the way we've had to the last two years."

Last month, the Fosters said they filed wrongful death claims against the Air Force, alleging the Academy failed to protect her from sexual assault and didn't help her with her mental health. Claims against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act must be filed within two years of the alleged incident.

The Fosters said they didn't want to file a claim but felt like they had no choice after they said the Air Force Academy refuses to talk to them about Cailin's death and what can be done to prevent more in the future.

KRDO 13 Investigates reached out to the Air Force Academy about Cailin's reported sexual assault, her mental health and her death but the Academy said it can't talk about Cailin's death due to "an open General Inspector complaint."

"I'm still proud of my time at the Air Force Academy, but there's a dark underside that they continually have to contend with," Gary said. "A lot of times they forget the seriousness of that underbelly that they need to take care of. In this case, they failed miserably."

"I just hope that the senior leadership learns from her story and makes those changes, because I can spout off a dozen changes that they could implement now," Gary continued.

To name a few, he said the Academy needs to implement 24/7 monitoring, especially in the dorms, required mental health counseling after traumatic events, better communication between leadership and improved chain of command for sexual assault reporting.

"A change has to be made because all these other families are suffering," Colleen said. "I don't want to see another family in the future suffer.”

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Quinn Ritzdorf

Quinn is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.


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