Editor’s note: FOX21 received a statement from the Air Force Academy on Wednesday, Nov. 15, which has since been incorporated into this article.
(COLORADO SPRINGS) — A haunting note written by a former United States Air Force Academy cadet, now leading her parents to file wrongful death claims against the Academy.
“Do all that you can to make sure I am the last one,” was the chilling directive 22-year-old Cailin Foster left in her suicide note to her parents on Nov. 7, 2021.
At the time, her note seemed cryptic to her parents, Gary and Colleen Foster, who were largely unaware of what their daughter endured during her time as a cadet.
“We didn’t know she had thoughts of suicide ever. It never would have crossed our mind that she would ever have thought that at all. We had no idea,” expressed Colleen.
In the past two years, they found out about an alleged rape Cailin experienced during her freshman year, and the battles she faced with suicidal thoughts in the following years.
On Oct. 27, with heavy hearts, a determination for justice, and the looming deadline of a two-year statute of limitations, the Fosters filed two wrongful death claims against the Academy, seeking accountability and reformation within its walls. Their relentless pursuit stems from a belief that a timely intervention from the Academy could have altered the tragic outcome.
“She should still be here today, and something could have been done earlier for her while she was at the Academy. She should still be here,” lamented Colleen.
Cailin, a native of Colorado Springs and a graduate of Palmer Ridge High School, followed her father’s path, graduating from the Academy with a degree in mechanical engineering. Her father recalls how proud he was to find out his daughter was carrying on his legacy.
“She could do pretty much anything she put her mind to… I always used to call her sunshine,” said Colleen, describing her as dynamic and vivacious.
After her freshman year, both her parents noticed a change in Cailin’s personality from a bubbly outgoing teen to a more reserved one. Colleen also recalls Cailin telling her that her hair had begun falling out.
At the time, the Fosters attributed these changes to the stress and rigor of the Academy, but looking back they now think the stress was rooted elsewhere.
“I really think that rape caused her to have unbelievable trauma in her life,” said Colleen.
Cailin was two months into her first assignment in Dayton, Ohio, when she took her own life.
Gary, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who graduated in 1990, attempted to engage with Academy leadership about what happened to his daughter. He spoke with people who were his former colleagues and friends, only to be met with what he described as people unable to comment.
When they requested a report regarding the investigation into their daughter’s death, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base sent them 159 black pages of redacted content.
“Not one letter, word, or punctuation mark was provided. They literally gave us 159 pages like this,” said Gary in disbelief.
The Fosters say Air Force Academy has yet to provide any direct documentation to them. In a statement to FOX21, a spokesperson from the Air Force Academy said, “With regard to this case, we can’t provide any information due to an open Inspector General complaint.”
The full statement from Air Force Academy can be found at the bottom of this article.
Through speaking with Cailin’s friends and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, who investigated her death, the Fosters said their quest for answers revealed a chain of negligence. They say Cailin reported her alleged rape to another cadet above her in the chain of command, along with both of her roommates, who also reported sexual assaults they endured in separate instances.
According to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office investigation, the man accused of raping Cailin was written a no-contact order a few months after the alleged rape in March 2018. The 48-page investigation also revealed the man disenrolled due to poor academics and was honorably discharged.
“They gave him an honorable discharge. That is a slap in the face to every military member that honorably served,” said Gary.
They also found out that Academy leaders were notified that Cailin was having thoughts of suicide but decided to let her schedule her own mental health appointment. She was, however, placed on an at-risk list but then subsequently removed before graduation, which means it wasn’t on record while she was on her first assignment.
“When I was at the Academy, I ran the cadet at-risk list, so I knew what the proper procedures were. When I asked for where’s the placement and removal letters, they did not provide them. I mean, something as simple as that. They just will not provide,” said Gary.
FOX21 inquired about the cadet at-risk list, which the spokesperson from the Air Force Academy addressed in the statement with an explanation of a new policy in its place. In summary, the former Cadet At-Risk program is now called the Commander’s Awareness List (CAL). Its role is to inform Cadet Wing leaders about cadets receiving specialized support at the Academy. The spokesperson said the main difference is the new process respects privacy between mental health and commanders. Information is shared in Treatment Team Meetings, with mental health tracking those on the High-Interest List. The CAL shares numbers with wing leaders for awareness, and only a cadet’s squadron commander can add or remove a cadet from the CAL.
Gary worked at the Academy 20 years ago when they issued the “Agenda for Change” report in 2003 after facing widespread criticism and charges of ongoing sexual misconduct. The report detailed 43 weak points in need of correction.
“There’s a saying, ‘If we don’t learn from history, we’re going to repeat it,’ and sadly, 20 years, we’re back, and it just took my daughter’s life… They knew that Cailin was suffering… They failed her as a freshman, and they failed her all through her junior and sophomore years with her roommates all the way up to her senior year,” said Gary.
According to a report by the Department of Defense released in March 2023, incidents of sexual assault at US military service academies were at the highest rate on record in the 2021-2022 academic year.
The report states, “While all three Military Service Academies saw an increase in prevalence among men and women as compared to 2018, the highest rates were evident among women at the United States Naval Academy and United States Air Force Academy.”
Driven by Cailin’s final plea, the Fosters are now resolute in their mission to make sure she is “the last one.”
“The last one to be raped, the last one to take their life, the last one to not receive the care that is really needed… We care about every single one of those cadets up at the Air Force Academy, they all deserve to have a great future. None of them deserve to have any harm come their way,” said Colleen.
Their claims seek both monetary damages and systemic change within the Academy. Amidst numerous advocacy efforts, their fight encompasses destigmatizing mental health for the military, empowering cadets to report sexual assault, and ensuring that the chain of command safeguards victims of such assaults.
The statement from the Air Force Academy detailed various campaigns and policies geared at addressing sexual assault and mental illness. Specifically, they mentioned the “Let’s Be Clear” campaign meant to address the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence, and the “Return to Health” policy, an effort to support cadets in normalizing seeking assistance in the areas of mental health.
The full statement from the Air Force Academy and more information they provided about these campaigns can be found at the bottom of this article.
The Fosters filed an appeal, to receive the results of the requesting the 159-page report, substantially less redacted. As of Nov. 14, Air Force said they are “unable to meet the time limits imposed by the FOIA,” and their request will be delayed until Dec. 13.
A list of mental health resources in southern Colorado can be found here: Let’s Talk Mental Health: Sponsors, Resources & Forums
The National Suicide Hotline, a prevention network of over 200+ crisis centers, can be reached 24/7 at 988.