Adrienne Barillas leans against a Humvee in South Korea. “She was so proud of wearing that uniform and all that it supposedly represented,” her mother says. “Sometimes I get mad at her for choosing to wear that uniform, then I feel guilty for those bitter thoughts and emotions.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

Short Changed: How The Army Failed Spc. Adrienne Barillas

As of Jan. 17, veterans thinking about hurting themselves can get free crisis care, including inpatient, for up to 90 days at Veterans Affairs. They do not need to be enrolled in VA care. For immediate help, dial 988, then press 1.

On a Saturday evening in September 2018, Spc. Adrienne Barillas went barhopping with fellow soldiers stationed at a U.S. Army base in South Korea.

Barillas, who several soldiers described as the first person they met when they joined the unit—a smiling, welcoming, comforting presence—loved to cook food from back home in Belize and to serve it to others in the barracks where she lived. She carried her welcome far past her job in-processing those new to the unit by organizing events for single soldiers. She was invited to every party, friends said. Her bosses called her a go-getter, the person depended on to do a job without supervision.

After initially joining the Army to help pay for college, she told her mom she might try to make a career of it. She was tight with her family and had just returned from leave. Her new husband said the couple spent every spare moment FaceTiming or texting, planning how they could be stationed together to start their new lives.

Mikey, one of Adrienne Barillas’ four brothers, and Barillas just before she left for basic training. Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

Mikey, one of Adrienne Barillas’ four brothers, and Barillas just before she left for basic training. Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

She was beautiful, he said.

“Adrienne loved to surround herself with people,” her mother said. “And people liked her.”

Like many young people living in military barracks with 60 or so other 20-somethings, there were skirmishes: She and her roommate didn’t get along. Barillas had a tendency to drink too much with her friends, and then to get emotional. She told friends her father’s business was failing and her brother was headed to jail, and that she needed to support them financially—heavy stress for a private first class making about $2,200 a month, minus taxes.

And she had talked, in the past, about attempts to kill herself, once even trying to jump out of an eighth-floor window in front of her fiance and her roommate, though she said she was too drunk to remember it. She told her mental health provider. She told friends.

That September Saturday evening, once again, Barillas drank too much and got emotional, friends and coworkers said. Even so, many of them said what happened next surprised them.

By the end of the evening, Barillas was dead. She had been happy while home on leave, her mother said. She had been happy in her new marriage, her husband said. She had been eager to complete the paperwork to get stationed with him, her coworkers said. The thought that her daughter would kill herself after appearing so excited about her future was enough to cause her mother to wonder if she was getting the truth—enough for her to ask for a second autopsy.

And it was enough to make her wonder if the Army had done enough to save her daughter.

Barillas desperately needed help. In the months leading to her death, a fellow soldier took advantage of Barillas’ intoxication to have sex with her, she told friends, but she did not report it, saying she was too embarrassed. On at least one occasion someone followed her to her barracks room, she told friends. A coworker sexually harassed her on multiple occasions, according to an investigation. Then, the married, senior-enlisted soldier assigned to help her with her harassment case developed a sexual relationship with her. She sought help from mental health services, only to be lost in the system—even after she told her therapist she had tried to take her own life.

As the military prepares to move sexual assault out of military commanders’ hands, The War Horse team looked at military women’s noncombat, not-from-natural-causes deaths since 9/11 and found a high rate of self-inflicted deaths after sexual assault, a bureacracy that promises cultural change but faces the same egregious headlines year after year, continuing problems with domestic violence, and punishment for those who do the right thing. But the team also found examples of units where women felt safe and respected based on culture change buy-in from their unit leadership. Art by Sarah Flores/for The War Horse.

As the military prepares to move sexual assault out of military commanders’ hands, The War Horse team looked at military women’s noncombat, not-from-natural-causes deaths since 9/11 and found a high rate of self-inflicted deaths after sexual assault, a bureaucracy that promises cultural change but faces the same egregious headlines year after year, continuing problems with domestic violence, and punishment for those who do the right thing. But the team also found examples of units where women felt safe and respected based on culture change buy-in from their unit leadership. Art by Sarah Flores/for The War Horse.

Barillas joins dozens of other young women who died in the years following the 9/11 attacks, when thousands of them joined the military and went to war, assuming, along with their families, that the only enemy they would face would come from the outside. Instead, their dreams of a military career or of school or family were dashed by a system that often left them hopeless in the face of sexual assault, depression, negligence, or violence. Their families struggled to find answers to the most basic question:

Why, in an organization meant to provide the best security in the world, had their sisters, daughters, and wives not been safe?

The military, as it has done many, many times before, has promised change after Congress mandated it following the death of yet another woman, Vanessa Guillén, which sparked a military #MeToo movement. Will this wave of changes be enough to make women feel valued, heard, and protected?

READ MORE
“It’s All Bullshit”: Broken Military Justice System Jeopardizes Trust and Puts Service Members at Risk

After Guillén was murdered at Fort Hood (now Fort Cavazos), Texas, in 2020, a team of War Horse reporters; journalism students from the Investigative Reporting Program at University of California, Berkeley; and reporters provided by The Fuller Project identified women who had died in the military in noncombat deaths since Sept. 11, 2001.

As the team read through investigations and news stories and talked with the women’s families, several trends emerged: Deaths by suicide often followed reports of sexual harassment or sexual abuse. Military culture, as well as the military legal system, did not prioritize women’s safety. Military women were murdered by their military partners at a rate comparable to that of civilian women, even as their supervisors have more tools, including closer oversight of their troops’ daily lives, to stop domestic abuse. And those who tried to help women sometimes faced reprisal or retaliation themselves—including career loss.

But The War Horse also found that climates toxic to women can improve if the people involved believe in the need for change.

As The War Horse team dug into women’s unnatural noncombat death cases since 9/11, it found that, for decades, thousands of victims have reported violence ranging from harassment and stalking to rapes and murders, with scandals across all branches—both active and reserve. In each case, victims had to follow an “incestuous” process to file a complaint, as one former Naval officer told Human Rights Watch, and were required to report harassment or assault to their direct supervisors. Those same supervisors, as in Barillas’ case, often took advantage of those vulnerable soldiers.

In 2006, 22-year-old Army Pfc. Hannah Gunterman McKinney—the mother of a toddler—was run over by a Humvee and left to die on the road on an American military base in Iraq following a night of drinking with a soldier who outranked her. This year, Shane Walker, a member of the Air National Guard, pleaded guilty in September to killing fellow guardsman and the mother of his two young children, Alla Ausheva, and setting a fire in their home in 2019. According to news reports, there was a previous domestic disturbance in the home. In 2018, Airman 1st Class Sissy Cox killed herself after being sexually assaulted multiple times—first by a fellow soldier at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, according to a lawsuit filed by her family, and then by a military contractor who worked in the mental health department at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, where she had been transferred after reporting the first rape.

Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox

  • Email address
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Just after Vanessa Guillen died, a Fort Hood commander who tried to report one of his soldiers—also an officer—for egregious sexual harassment instead watched as his entire command team was investigated and punished, and the soldier—who a previous investigator had said should never lead troops again—retained his rank and remained in the military.

The most recent report shows sexual assault reports increased again in 2022, according to a Pentagon study.

Despite mounting pressure and increased scrutiny, the military has not embraced the systematic changes that advocates and veterans say are necessary to stop these deaths.

Guillén twice reported sexual harassment, then another soldier killed her. In response, Congress ordered that all sexual assault, domestic violence, and murder cases go outside the chain of command to the Offices of Special Trial Counsel—outside the long line of people, more often than not men, who a servicemember reports to, from section sergeant to general officer. That way, as advocates have argued for years, a commander cannot refuse to look into a case, influence the outcome of a case, retaliate against a service member for making a complaint, or place a service member in harm’s way while dealing with a case. 

But this isn’t the first time a scandal has rocked the military. And it’s not the first time Congress has demanded change. After Tailhook, when in 1993, Navy women aviation officers were groped by Navy men as they walked a “gauntlet” at an event, women were allowed to serve in almost every aviation capacity, as well as on combat ships. In 1996, after 12 officers and drill instructors at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland were charged with sexually abusing and raping their recruits, all servicemembers were required to go through sexual harassment training. And in 2017, after Marines, using their real names, posted nude pictures of women Marines on social media as a form of punishment—in front of their leadership—the military made revenge pornography illegal.

Despite mounting pressure and increased scrutiny, the military has not embraced the systematic changes that advocates and veterans say are necessary to stop these deaths.

Adrienne Barillas snaps a photo in the barracks while in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. “It was the first time she was away from her family and I think it was harde[r] on me than her,” her mother says. “She was always independent and wasn’t afraid to meet people or go to new places so she was excited to start her journey in the Army.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

Adrienne Barillas snaps a photo in the barracks while in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. “It was the first time she was away from her family and I think it was harde[r] on me than her,” her mother says. “She was always independent and wasn’t afraid to meet people or go to new places so she was excited to start her journey in the Army.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

In the past, military leaders have opposed taking sexual assault cases out of their hands, but after the Guillén case, flag officers, such as Gen. Mark Milley, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Loyd Austin, changed their minds.

“Sexual assault and harassment remain persistent and corrosive problems across the total force,” Gilbert Cisneros, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, wrote in an April 2023 memo. “It is for this reason the Secretary of Defense has made countering these harmful behaviors a top strategy in taking care of our people.”

Because of Guillén’s death—and because of the military #MeToo movement that arose as she first couldn’t be found and then the horrifying details of her murder came out—servicemembers can report sexual assault to the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, rather than to someone within their unit.

“Implementation of the approved [Independent Review Commission] recommendations represents the most historic and substantial changes to the department’s efforts to eliminate sexual assault and sexual harassment from our ranks,” Cisneros wrote.

For the next five weeks, The War Horse will publish its special series, “Short Changed,” but will also ask for leads about other deaths as reporters continue to build a database and report on women’s noncombat deaths in the military. This will allow the team to conduct follow-ups to see if things improve as new laws that require investigations to go outside the chain of command are adapted, but also look into past cases to see if there’s possibility for resolution or closure.

If things don’t change, some believe the problem will go beyond hurting women.

“While maybe, ‘I don’t want to do the paperwork,’ or ‘I don’t want to embarrass the unit’—whatever their sorry-ass excuse is—it turns into a much larger problem in the immediate future,” said Army Master Sgt. Noah Sidonio, who watched as his commander was punished for reporting another officer for sexual harassment, “and degrades military trust, leader trust, esprit de corps, so on and so forth.”

‘He Got Mad at Me and Started to Retaliate’

Those changes come on the backs of thousands of women who, over the decades, have feared reporting sexual harassment or assault, or have reported it only to face repercussions—or more sexual harassment. Even the sexual harassment and assault classes that followed previous scandals appear to have left unclear for servicemembers what the rules are: People incapacitated by alcohol cannot give consent, according to the Manual for Courts-Martial. Military personnel should understand at what point a situation becomes harassment and then know how to report it. Personal relationships between lower-enlisted and higher-enlisted servicemembers are prohibited because, even if both people are willing, the lower-ranking person may feel pressure to behave in a particular way or to stay in the relationship, and because the relationship can lead to favoritism within the ranks. And personnel assigned as case managers in a sexual harassment situation should not engage in a sexual relationship with the person they’re helping.

Adrienne Barillas poses at her 16th birthday party. “We celebrated every special occasion and achievement,” her mother, Emogene Barillas, says. “When Adrienne was about 12-ish, she continued that tradition and became the celebration planner and host.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

Adrienne Barillas poses at her 16th birthday party. “We celebrated every special occasion and achievement,” her mother, Emogene Barillas, says. “When Adrienne was about 12-ish, she continued that tradition and became the celebration planner and host.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

In early 2018, soldiers later told investigators, Barillas confided that she went drinking with some friends. She needed to use the bathroom as she waited for a taxi back home. A soldier from another unit pointed her toward a laundromat with an available bathroom, and then he followed her in. The two began to kiss, and “she remembered having intercourse,” a friend said Barillas told them, “but felt guilty afterward because it wasn’t her intent.” The soldier said Barillas “did not want to do anything about the incident and just wanted to forget it happened.”

The following month, in May 2018, Barillas filed a sexual harassment complaint against a staff sergeant who worked down the hall from her office.

Throughout seven pages of Barillas’ journal entries, provided by her mother, Barillas wrote that the staff sergeant began to sexually harass her immediately after she arrived in Korea—months before she filed an official report with her chain of command that allowed them to take action. When the two first met as Barillas processed into her new company, she said the staff sergeant introduced himself and immediately began asking questions about whether she had a boyfriend.

He “asked what kind of guys I’m into and if I like older guys and what I want from a guy,” Barillas wrote in her journal. “[He] would compliment my face, skin tone, body, and lips.”

As the harassment continued, the staff sergeant “would try to convince me to talk to him on an intimate level,” she wrote. In one exchange, she noted that he said, “‘I don’t want you to look at me as just a [noncommissioned officer], I’m real cool and chill, don’t take the rank seriously.’”

The staff sergeant also began to text Barillas casually. He told her “to call him by his first name,” she wrote. “[He] told me to change his name in my phone so people would not see that he’s texting me.” Later, he invited Barillas to Seoul ahead of the Army birthday ball. The staff sergeant offered to buy Barillas lunch and to take her shopping.

“In the beginning I wasn’t sure how to deal with it,” Barillas wrote. “So I just ignored it.”

But soon the manipulation increased, Barillas wrote in her journal.

“He tried to make me become comfortable with him and the idea of being with him intimately,” she wrote. She also recalled the staff sergeant’s response when she resisted his advances.

“I’ve been in the Army a long time and I’ve seen it happen alot [sic] so it’s okay. Shit, I’ve done it before too,” she wrote that the staff sergeant said. “Rank don’t [sic] matter. It’s as long as you like each other, you’re both comfortable, and you’re both on the same page. You need some one that can play it cool and when you fuck won’t go talking.”

During working hours, Barillas wrote that the staff sergeant would “hover” and touch her arms inappropriately. “If there’s no one in the office he’d sit and try and get close and continue to make small talk even though I would give him the cold shoulder.”

“There’s a 99% chance that you’ll never be held accountable if you sexually harass or assault someone in the military,” said Col. Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force. “If there was anything else in the military with this failure rate, leaders would be fired.”

After work and on weekends during her first few months at Camp Humphreys, the senior soldier invited Barillas to drink with him. But in March, things changed when Barillas confronted the staff sergeant about a sexual rumor he was spreading about another lower-enlisted servicewoman. When Barillas informed her leadership about the rumor, they confronted the staff sergeant, who denied it, according to Barillas’ handwritten journals. But his harassment of Barillas intensified.

“Because I didn’t lie for him and said his name, he got mad at me and started to be petty and retaliate,” Barillas wrote in her journal. “He started to go out of his way to say stuff to me and talk down to me.”

The year after Barillas’ death, the Defense Department commissioned a broad survey of active-duty troops about gender relations in uniform. Service members described patterns of coercion and retaliation when they reported sexual violence, and the focus groups identified systemic flaws in how crimes are addressed in uniform from small-unit case managers up to senior officials within the halls of the Pentagon. And like the participants from across the armed forces, many leading advocates argued that the Defense Department would benefit from a complete overhaul of how it handles violence against military women.

“There’s a 99% chance that you’ll never be held accountable if you sexually harass or assault someone in the military,” said Col. Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force. “If there was anything else in the military with this failure rate, leaders would be fired.”

Like many other women, Barillas reported her harassment to someone within her chain of command—as she was required to do—in an unrestricted report, which means her leadership was required to look into the allegation. In her case, the staff sergeant was demoted in rank and moved to a new unit, according to an Army investigation.

A servicemember may also file a restricted report, which means the sexual assault response coordinator or victim advocate knows the reporter has been harassed or assaulted, but the reporter has chosen not to make the complaint public or to go through legal channels or their chain of command to address it. This way, the person reporting the abuse can still get health exams and mental health help.

An unrestricted report allows the chain of command to decide whether to prosecute if the accused is a servicemember, or to move the person reporting the abuse out of harm’s way. But this has meant the person dealing with harassment or abuse has had to tell their boss. In the civilian world, people either go to their human resources department or to the police.

This tactic, Barillas’ mother, Emogene Barillas, said, not only silences victims but ensures “the military gets to be judge, jury, and executioner.”

In Barillas’ case, while her chain of command appears to have handled the sexual harassment case properly, the sergeant first class assigned to help her did not.

‘Me and PFC Barillas Exchanged Texts That Were Not Appropriate’

In June, Barillas broke up with her boyfriend of four months. She thought they were serious and headed for something long term. He told her he and his wife were estranged—that they were working toward divorce. They were not. Several people also told investigators that the soldier’s wife harassed Barillas after finding out about the relationship.

The relationship ended on bad terms, with Barillas breaking some of his belongings and telling at least one person that a long, deep cut on her wrist had appeared after she punched his television, according to the investigation. She told others that she had surgery, had burned herself cooking, or had been cut in a car accident.

Then, toward the end of June, the helpful messages she had received from the sergeant first class assigned to help her through her sexual harassment case changed: She sent him nude photographs of herself, and he reciprocated with photos of his own.

“Me and PFC Barillas exchanged text messages that [were] not appropriate between a senior leader and a subordinate,” the sergeant first class told investigators.

Eventually, Barillas had sex with the higher-enlisted soldier, according to the investigation into her case. Four sources interviewed for this story identified Sgt. 1st Class Michael Smith, a senior soldier in Barillas’ unit, as her case manager and as a soldier whose name was redacted in investigation documents. Not only was Smith assigned to provide Barillas with support while her sexual harassment case went through, including ensuring that she got counseling and understood her rights, but he was also part of Barillas’ chain of command—so she was required to follow his orders. He was also friends with the man Barillas accused of sexual harassment, soldiers told investigators.

Smith, who remains on active duty, declined to comment and alleged an unwarranted invasion of privacy through a military public affairs representative when The War Horse reached out to him.

In July, Barillas went home to Belize on leave. Her mom remembered taking pictures at the airport at the end of her trip.

“This is the last time my son and I got to hug Adrienne,” she wrote in an email. “I was so emotional that morning. I did not [want] her to go. My stomach was in knots.”

Adrienne Barillas poses with her family after completing basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. “We were all so proud and amazed that she made it through basic training,” her mother says. “The Army wasn’t our first choice for her, but we all supported her choice.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

Adrienne Barillas poses with her family after completing basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. “We were all so proud and amazed that she made it through basic training,” her mother says. “The Army wasn’t our first choice for her, but we all supported her choice.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

Smith and Barillas texted each other while she was home, Smith told investigators, adding that though they both knew the relationship would never be serious—Smith was married—she began to hope for more.

Todd VanCantfort, a retired Air Force special agent and expert with more than 40 years of experience alongside the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, reviewed Barillas’ case for The War Horse.

“In the case of sexual harassment support, there is a serious ethical issue there with the facilitator establishing a sexual relationship with the victim during the period of investigation,” he said.

Following Barillas’ death, Smith’s leadership would discipline him for fraternization, or developing a sexual relationship with someone in his unit far below him in rank.

Smith told investigators he and Barillas eventually drifted apart, that he “was just stressed out, he stopped messaging her, and the relationship just dissolved.” Ultimately, things went back to normal, Smith told investigators. In fact, he told them she trusted him enough to ask him to give her a ride from the gate back to the barracks the night she died.

He would be one of the last people to see her alive.

‘A Soldier Who Could Complete Any Task’

While the chain of command didn’t know about the relationship with Smith, they did know Barillas faced sexual harassment. And it was well-known within the company, including by Smith, that Barillas sometimes drank to excess, investigators later found. But when she sought mental health help, there was no follow up.

In May, Barillas drank too much—a strong liquor she wasn’t used to that was available in South Korea. Her roommate could hear her talking to someone on the phone, but she told investigators Barillas was speaking a language she didn’t recognize—Barillas had grown up in Belize, where several languages are spoken besides English, and earned her U.S. citizenship after she joined the Army—so Barillas’ roommate didn’t understand the conversation.

When she went to check on her, she found that Barillas had thrown her belongings around the room. (The two lived in a suite with two bedrooms and a shared kitchen, bathroom, and living area.) Barillas’ then-fiance had begun to clean up as Barillas told him her brother was going to jail and her family was too poor to help, her roommate told investigators.

Barillas was crying and appeared drunk. At one point, she walked into the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and began to cut her hair, her roommate told investigators. She took the screen out of her eighth-story window and began to throw things out; her roommate said she and Barillas’ fiance then stopped Barillas from jumping.

“She cut out the screen, and I got between her and the window, then I closed back the window,” her then-fiance told investigators.

She removed pictures from her walls and flung them around, he said. He picked up the items outside her window.

Barillas fell asleep, and her fiance left.

The next morning, Barillas told her then-fiance she was embarrassed about what she had done, and that, as the oldest child, she faced extreme pressure to help her family financially. Her family was so poor that her brother was unable to go to school, she said. But her then-fiance said she had otherwise never mentioned hurting herself, and never did again after that day.

She also told a soldier she walked with in the mornings during physical training, who she asked not to tell anyone about the incident. She told her fiance that the company commander talked to her and she went to behavioral health for a few days, he told investigators. He didn’t think she was seriously trying to hurt herself. But he worried enough to tell her platoon sergeant.

And the next few times Barillas came home drunk, her roommate left her door open to make sure she didn’t try to open the window.

She also kept the kitchen knives hidden for a while, she told investigators. But nobody reported that Barillas had tried to jump out of the window.

Barillas’ roommate told investigators she and Barillas had once been friends, but they had a falling out—not uncommon when young people from around the country and from many different backgrounds suddenly find themselves living, working, and socializing together. Barillas, only 22 herself, lived in a world where every action, in almost every situation, could be seen and judged by her coworkers.

And in this case, the issue appeared to be about appearances:

“PFC Barillas and I used to cook food for each other and go out to get groceries for our room together,” Barillas’ roommate told investigators. “We never were really best friends and hung out a lot, but we were cool and got along.”

And then Barillas filed the sexual harassment case she detailed in her journal.

“Around June, I made a decision to distance myself from a lot of people, including PFC Barillas because of gossip and bad rumors that were being said about me,” her roommate told investigators, “also because of a harassment case that I wanted no part in but was almost dragged into.”

In late August or early September, Barillas asked to be moved because she said her roommate wasn’t “respecting” her space, one of her supervisors told investigators. He met with them to convince them to get along.

“I can honestly say PFC Barillas was a soldier who [could] complete any … task given to her and would go out of her way to assist her fellow soldiers,” he later told investigators.

‘There’s Pressure Not to Embarrass the Military’

But Barillas was worried enough about her own mental health that earlier that year, during the spring—in the midst of the harassment case, a relationship with a married man, and fraternizing with her sexual harassment case manager—Barillas enrolled in mental health treatment. During her first appointment, in May, documents show Barillas spent roughly 20 minutes with a counselor, where she reported “high levels” of stress, anxiety, and depression. The two discussed money problems, her father’s failing business, and Barillas’ recent suicidal ideation, which the social worker should have reported, according to DOD regulations.

Barillas told the counselor her family had a history of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Her answers on her questionnaire showed she was at risk for post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression. She didn’t threaten to hurt herself, but she did tell her provider, in May, that she did have suicidal ideation. She wrote in her medical notes that she had personal and family problems, and that she tried to jump out of her window, and that was why she was seeking help.

The counselor told investigators she didn’t want to lose Barillas’ trust, saying that notifying her leaders “would ruin the ability to get to [the] root of the problem in follow-on sessions.”

She saw the attempt to jump out the window as “a cry for help,” she told investigators.

Barillas’ fiance knew. Her roommate knew. Her therapist knew.

But nobody followed up after Barillas had talked about killing herself at a time when the military was in the midst of a suicide crisis.

Nobody, including her provider, believed it was an honest attempt.

Days after her appointment, Barillas canceled her next session. The counselor—described as having 24 years of experience—told investigators she “lost track” of Barillas.

“I was always so paranoid and scared for her—so very scared—but never thought that she would die, which is crazy considering that she was in the Army and that we would all eventually die,” Adrienne Barillas mother says. “I still cannot come to terms with her not being here.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

“I was always so paranoid and scared for her—so very scared—but never thought that she would die, which is crazy considering that she was in the Army and that we would all eventually die,” Adrienne Barillas mother says. “I still cannot come to terms with her not being here.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

Because her chain of command didn’t know, they didn’t check on her mental health appointments, according to the investigation.

“During suicide prevention training, leaders should emphasize the importance of getting soldiers help and discourage soldiers from attempting to draw conclusions about whether a suicidal attempt or ideation is genuine,” the CID investigator wrote.

VanCantfort, the retired Air Force special agent, found that Barillas had tried to kill herself multiple times, and said the “local systems failed.”

During her time as the former director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, Jackie Garrick said she met resistance when she advocated for better data collection about whether a correlation between sexual assaults and suicides exists.

“There are self-serving people involved in these systems, manipulating and gaming the system for their personal gain and not being held accountable for any harm,” Garrick, an Army veteran, told The War Horse. “There’s a lot of challenges having fair, objective, and independent investigations. It’s all very incestuous. Congress thinks one thing is happening, but that’s not what is actually happening.”

Christensen, the former chief prosecutor for the Air Force and former president of Protect Our Defenders, said the problem extends throughout the Defense Department. And the military’s “zero tolerance policy” toward sexual harassment and assault does not exist, he said—quite the opposite: The military system is “ill-equipped” to address cases like Barillas. To make matters worse, he alleges widespread complicity has been allowed to fester.

“There’s a pressure to be a team player and not embarrass the military,” Christensen said.

Barillas herself initially seemed unsure whether to report the sergeant who had sexually harassed her at work, and his statements to her—about having done it before and seeing others in similar relationships—implied a belief that the military culture would support him.

On Aug. 29, the month before her death and to the surprise of her family members, Barillas married a soldier she had begun dating a few weeks earlier—the fiance in the room with her when she tried to cut her hair with a knife. Her new husband then deployed back to the States the day after their wedding ceremony, explaining, in part, the quick wedding. Smith, her sexual harassment case sergeant, approved, though the marriage occurred just after their own relationship had ended.

“At this time, she married one of my best soldiers and they both seemed extremely happy,” Smith told investigators.

She was pushing through paperwork so she could join him at Fort Bliss in Texas under the Married Army Couples Program. Her husband spoke with The War Horse for this story, but only under the condition of anonymity because he said he feared retaliation from the Army. Others also spoke of a climate that bred complicity and fear.

“There were a lot of sexual harassment cases going on within our unit and base—it was not a good place for women,” said Barillas’ active-duty husband. “I was a young soldier, so you don’t get told much, but in formations, they’d warn both men and women to be careful, to stay vigilant because even on base you weren’t safe.”

‘I Could Have Prevented It From Happening’

The night of Barillas’ death began with dancing and rounds of shots at the Tailgate Tavern during a farewell celebration for colleagues, and it ended a few hours later at the Cadillac Club, a nightclub where fellow soldiers cut her off from drinking.

Barillas drank more than half a dozen shots and cocktails, but soldiers who spoke with investigators disagreed on whether she appeared to be drunk.

According to investigators, her blood alcohol level was between .25 and .27, or severely intoxicated.

They’d gone out that night because two soldiers would soon leave for another duty station. Barillas laughed, danced, and seemed to be having fun while they were out.

But at some point, after they went to a second club, she began to cry. According to one witness, someone had posted a video on snapchat that night of someone who looked like Barillas’ husband holding hands with someone else. A voice over the video said something like, “They are so cute.” The witness remembered turning to her husband and saying, “Looks like he already found a new one.” She told investigators she couldn’t see the man’s face. She didn’t know Barillas and the soldier had gotten married, she said. A friend of Barillas’ husband later told investigators the video was of him and his girlfriend, and not of Barillas’ husband.

During a phone interview in August 2020, Cpl. Tyler Dula recounted a night of barhopping with friends. He was the last person to see Adrienne Barillas alive on Sept. 23, 2018. They drank together that night at a bar off base with another soldier, said Dula, who was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as a truck driver with the 101st Airborne Division at the time of the interview. Army public affairs did not respond to requests to verify Dula’s duty status.

Barillas was friends with someone who was leaving, so she had been invited along, Dula said.

“She was an outstanding person, a soldier,” he said. “She was kind—she was really good with people, worked really hard. She was overall a really good personality, and a good charismatic person as it is, too.”

Shortly after 10 p.m., Barillas was cognizant enough to call one of her superiors, Sgt. 1st Class Smith, the sergeant she had sex with after he was assigned to her sexual harassment case, for a ride home for herself and two other soldiers who lived in her barracks.

Around 10:30 p.m, Smith arrived to take Barillas and the two other soldiers back to the barracks. The soldiers had a midnight curfew. In the backseat of his car that Saturday night, Barillas began to cry inconsolably, the three soldiers said. No one could figure out why she would have any reason to cry. She’d seemed happy and even playful earlier in the evening.

But Dula remembers her looking at her phone earlier in the evening. “She seemed pretty distraught,” he said. “That’s when we started getting in contact with Sgt. 1st Class Smith.”

When they arrived at the barracks, the three helped Barillas inside. Smith talked to the CQ–the “change of quarters” soldier pulling duty to answer phones and generally keep watch over the barracks—at the barracks’ front desk, and Dula told The War Horse he and the other soldier brought Barillas up to her eighth-floor room. There, she was so inebriated she couldn’t find the key to unlock her own door, they said. After they helped her inside, two of the soldiers left.

Smith told investigators that after Barillas got to her room, he left.

Dula told The War Horse Barillas was so drunk she could barely stand. He sat in a chair and watched Barillas to make sure she was OK, he said.

“I didn’t know what she was going to do—if she was going to act crazy or anything like that,” Dula told The War Horse.

Barillas’ door stood open, and her roommate told investigators she “could see him just talking to her.” Her roommate went into her own bedroom and closed the door. Dula told investigators that Barillas cried and threw her clothes around the room, a seeming repeat of the night a few months earlier with her then-fiance. Barillas didn’t tell Dula why she was upset, he said.

Multiple soldiers reported hearing a woman screaming while Dula was alone with Barillas.

“I just heard crying,” Dula told The War Horse. “Sobbing.”

After she calmed down, he said Barillas asked him to leave so she could go to sleep—and that he obliged.

Dula told investigators soon after Barillas’ death that he sat with her between 40 minutes and an hour.

“PFC Barillas was mumbling,” investigators wrote that Dula told them, “and he could not understand what was wrong and left when she started yelling at him to get out.”

Dula told The War Horse Barillas was awake when he left her room.

“She told me, ‘I’m going to go to fucking sleep,’” he said. “And I believed her. I shouldn’t have left the room. Should have stayed. That’s my biggest thing I gotta live with is I could have prevented that from happening.”

Adrienne Barillas leans against a Humvee in South Korea. “She was so proud of wearing that uniform and all that it supposedly represented,” her mother says. “Sometimes I get mad at her for choosing to wear that uniform, then I feel guilty for those bitter thoughts and emotions.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

Adrienne Barillas leans against a Humvee in South Korea. “She was so proud of wearing that uniform and all that it supposedly represented,” her mother says. “Sometimes I get mad at her for choosing to wear that uniform, then I feel guilty for those bitter thoughts and emotions.” Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

Between 11:45 p.m. and midnight, the sergeant in charge of the barracks that night said someone reported someone was throwing things out of a window.

“I decided to ignore it until things settled down,” he told investigators.

Someone else told investigators they heard banging around 11, but didn’t think anything of it because “it’s normal” in the barracks.

At midnight, someone else heard “a couple of guy [sic] yelling,” but didn’t check it out. “I didn’t see anything,” another soldier told investigators. “I heard yelling around 12:30 a.m. … I couldn’t make out what they were saying.” Another heard screaming 30 minutes later. Another soldier wrote in a statement that, “I heard female [sic] screaming but didn’t pay too much attention to it.”

Barillas’ roommate told investigators she heard someone leave, and Barillas yelled after him: “Bring it to me!” Her roommate didn’t know what Barillas referred to, she said. Dula told investigators he didn’t have any of Barillas’ possessions.

“[Barillas] then came back into the room and I could hear her moving around knocking over things in our kitchen and bathroom area,” Barillas’ roommate told investigators. She waited until she no longer heard her, then went into the common area to pick up a bit. Barillas’ roommate fell asleep around 2:30 a.m.

At some point, according to what police found on Dula’s phone during the investigation, he received a text message from his platoon sergeant, Smith, saying, “She asleep yet?” Dula responded that he hoped so.

Investigators were unable to find Barillas’ phone and did not release phone records to her family following the investigation, family members say.

Dula tried to call Barillas, he told investigators, but she did not answer, so at some point after midnight, he went back to her room to check on her. He had called her at 12:08, 12:12, and 12:18, according to the investigation, but she didn’t answer.

Dula sent a message to Barillas: “We need to talk when you wake up.” It was 12:49 a.m.

“Approximately 0100, an unknown soldier reported to me that they heard a weird scream or screams coming from [Barillas’ room],” the sergeant in charge of the barracks told investigators. “No additional details were provided.”

Dula drank whiskey until he fell asleep, he said.

‘I Didn’t Really Believe Them’

Around four a.m., the sergeant in charge took out the trash and decided to check around the barracks. At 4:10 a.m., he found a nude woman lying face down, he told investigators. The sergeant grabbed a blanket and tried to find a pulse.

“I touched her neck, I tried to rub the upper part of her back to get some type of response and pinched her ear lobe,” he wrote in a statement. “I did not get any kind of response, so I backed off. … She was stiff, super stiff. I did not get a pulse, but the body felt warm, so it gave me hope that she was OK. I tried to roll her over, but she was stiff as hell. I wanted to warm her up, and I put the blanket or rug on her.”

A few months before she died, Adrienne Barillas visited her family in Belize, including her mother Emogene and her brother Mikey. Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

A few months before she died, Adrienne Barillas visited her family in Belize, including her mother Emogene and her brother Mikey. Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

The sergeant had another soldier guard the body as he ran inside to call military police and the staff duty sergeant in charge. When he could not get a response from the woman on the ground, he tried to figure out who she was. He found a pill bottle nearby with her name: Barillas.

“I found the pill bottle outside and remembered someone saying earlier that night that she was going to jump,” he wrote in a statement. “I overheard [redacted] mentioning it about 0230. It appeared that it was an empty threat and an emotional statement.”

“Do you recall you or [redacted] saying something that could have been heard as, ‘I hope she doesn’t jump’ or anything similar to that statement?” the investigator later asked Dula.

“No, I am confident me and [redacted] both did not say that,” Dula answered. “It never crossed our mind that she would hurt herself so I don’t know why either of us would of said that or anything like that.”

The sergeant in charge of the barracks ran to the barracks, grabbed a master key, and went to Barillas’ room. He knocked on the door, waking Barillas’ roommate. Barillas’ door was open, as was her window. The screen had been pushed out, he told investigators.

A single bed lined one wall, with a small bedside table beside it. Tacked to her wall were a love note and photos with friends. An overstuffed recliner sat beneath a large window. She lived on the top floor. Beneath a large wall-mounted TV sat another bureau. Clothes, hangers, and suitcases had been strewn around the floor. The yellow romper Barillas had been wearing the previous night and a chef’s knife lay behind the door. Her wedding ring lay beneath a pile of hangers. A box of tampons had been emptied all over the room.

Barillas’ roommate also saw that the window was open wide, she told investigators. When she peered down from the window into the darkness two hours before sunrise, she saw her former friend on the ground.

“By the time I got back downstairs, the [military police], [criminal investigation division], and [senior sergeant in charge] were all there and I was informed it was now a crime scene and I would have to leave the [area of operations],” the sergeant in charge of the barracks told investigators.

At 7 a.m., Dula said military police officers woke him up and escorted him downstairs.

Barillas takes a final photo with her mother and brother before returning to South Korea after being on leave. “These are photos taken at the airport when we saw her off—unbeknown that it was the last time we would see her smile, the last time we would feel the warmth of her embrace, the last she would be with us alive,” her mother says. Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

Barillas takes a final photo with her mother and brother before returning to South Korea after being on leave. “These are photos taken at the airport when we saw her off—unbeknown that it was the last time we would see her smile, the last time we would feel the warmth of her embrace, the last she would be with us alive,” her mother says. Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

“I went to smoke a cigarette after they found me, and they told me what happened and I was kind of in shock and didn’t really believe them,” Dula told The War Horse. When he tried to see the crime scene, Dula said that his leaders stopped him.

“When I left the room, she was very much alive,” Dula told The War Horse. She hadn’t said anything about hurting herself, he said. If he had suspected Barillas was suicidal or known about her recent mental health appointment, he never would have left her alone, he repeatedly told investigators and The War Horse during interviews.

“I’m just trying to do right by her and her family and my friend [Barillas’ husband],” Dula said. “I’m trying to give out whatever information I really could, and hopefully it helps out in whatever way possible for her, because that was a good person that was taken away from this world.”

At Fort Bliss, Barillas’ husband told investigators she texted him while she was out. He told her to be careful—to “be safe, have fun, and know your limits,” because he said he knew she didn’t drink often, and that when she did, “she became very emotional and did not know how to handle herself.”

He tried to call his wife. He tried to call other members of her unit. No one responded.

Eventually, he was called downstairs, where he saw his chaplain.

“I Wanted to Help the Family Find Closure”

Almost immediately following her daughter’s death, Barillas’ mother said that friends and soldiers began messaging her on social media, sparking concerns about whether Barillas had killed herself or if someone else had attacked her.

Everyone seemed convinced that Barillas never would have hurt herself—even with the evidence to the contrary: the concern she expressed to her therapist, the day she had threatened to jump out of her barracks window, the emotional outbursts when she had too much to drink.

One of the soldiers who talked to her mother after her death was Barillas’ team leader, a now-retired soldier named Heather Brown. Of her time working with Barillas at Camp Humphreys, she described the culture as predatory.

A soldier wipes away a tear at Adrienne Barillas’ memorial in South Korea. Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

A soldier wipes away a tear at Adrienne Barillas’ memorial in South Korea. Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

“We were put with an engineer battalion and we were their first scent of females—they didn’t know how to act,” Brown told The War Horse. “There were women who made complaints, and they were given expedited orders and sent back stateside. They would just get rid of the problem.”

After Barillas died, Brown said she heard lots of rumors: “That she died in her sleep, that she was raped when she first got to Korea,” she said. “I was also told that when she went out the window, she didn’t die right away.” She heard that Barillas told first responders she was pushed.

By the time the military notified Barillas’ mother about her daughter’s death three days later, she already knew. Because they took so long, and because the details didn’t match up with what she’d been told or with details from the investigation, she grew suspicious.

The military told her her daughter had been found unresponsive and that CPR was unsuccessful, she said. But the investigation states that CPR was not performed. Her mother also said officials refused to discuss Barillas’ injuries or the status of the investigation. Her family said they haven’t heard much since Barillas died in 2018. Soldiers and family members tell The War Horse that records show the barracks were equipped with a closed-circuit security system, but the Army hasn’t released that footage.

“They have this video footage of her last minutes alive,” her mother, Emogene Barillas, told The War Horse. “And they won’t release it to me.”

Following her death, the military assigned a unit investigator to interview Barillas’ family members and her fellow soldiers, as well as to determine the circumstances that might have contributed to Barillas’ death. The Army also questioned Dula repeatedly over the span of about five months.

For a while, it “felt like they were trying to prosecute me,” Dula said, though he said he thought the Army was just trying to get all the information it could about Barillas’ death. “I was just being a good Samaritan friend, making sure she was good, and for whatever reason, this happened.”

But VanCantfort said the problems started long before Barillas died.

“There were plenty of red flags to have intervened in the weeks and even months preceding the death,” he said. “The mental health protocols and the sexual harassment protocols were highly questionable.”

A military escort accompanies Adrienne Barillas’ remains back home to Belize. “These are photos of the day a piece of me died,” her mother says. Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

A military escort accompanies Adrienne Barillas’ remains back home to Belize. “These are photos of the day a piece of me died,” her mother says. Photo courtesy of Emogene Barillas.

According to Natalie Khawam, the counsel representing Vanessa Guillén’s family, much more needs to be done to address a widespread culture of “sloppy” investigations and the military’s ability to “unfairly” restrict information from families like Barillas.

“When they’re not sharing what they’ve done, you’re really kept in the dark,” Kwaham said during a phone interview.

When the family received Barillas’ remains more than two weeks after her death, they had her body flown to her native country for a family burial. She had been born in Belize City, and her family felt it was important for her to be buried alongside her relatives. Inside the casket, Specialist Barillas wore her Army dress uniform. She received full burial honors by soldiers sent from Puerto Rico.

Our Journalism Depends on Your Support

  • Hidden

Before she was buried, the family had a brief secondary medical examination conducted by Hugh Sanchez, the senior pathologist in Belize.

“I wanted to help the family find closure by doing the autopsy,” Sanchez said. But after initially saying his findings didn’t match those of the military’s, he walked back his claims.

For his own mental health, Barillas’ husband said he needs to believe the military report.

“Sexual harassment and assault is something the Army says needs to stop,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not taken seriously at all.”

Barillas’ mother feels that, like the truth, closure may never come.

“I often lay awake at night unable to sleep wondering if she’s at peace or if she is [as] tortured as I am, still asking—why?” she wrote in an email. “I will never understand why she had to die so soon.”

Do you have a case we should add to our database? Please contact The War Horse.


This War Horse investigation was reported by Thomas J. Brennan, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin and Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines. Prepublication review was completed by BakerHostetler. 

Tags: , , , ,

Thomas J. Brennan

Thomas is the founder and executive director of The War Horse. He served as an infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan before studying investigative reporting at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Vanity Fair, Center for Investigative Reporting, and on the front page of The New York Times. Thomas has held fellowships at the Center for a New American Security, The Atlantic Council, and The George W. Bush Institute. Thomas's feature writing has been awarded by the Society for Features Journalism and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. His investigative reporting has earned him both a national and regional Edward R. Murrow, two Fourth Estate Awards, and the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism Award. He can be reached at thomas@thewarhorse.org.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Do you value compassionate, compelling stories like this? Donate $15 so we can continue to dig in on stories that matter, and let us keep our reporting and writing seminars free for everyone.