A Republican congressman recently sent a letter to the defense secretary calling for reforms to military training in the wake of an Army investigation that found "disturbing revelations" surrounding a Bradley fighting vehicle rollover accident that took the life of a young soldier in South Korea last November.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Florida, sent the letter Monday to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, detailing how Spc. Nicholas Panipinto of Bradenton, Florida, lacked the proper training to drive the massive armored fighting vehicle on a Nov. 6 road test at Camp Humphreys, South Korea.
In addition, there were malfunctions of the vehicle's communication systems, defective or broken equipment, a lack of medical services on base, and significant delays in medical response to the scene of the accident, according to the letter.
"The heartbreaking and very preventable death of my constituent, Spc. Nicholas Panipinto, clearly shows that changes in training and safety procedures need to be made," Buchanan said in a statement. "The serious deficiencies and failures identified in the report on Spc. Panipinto's death call for immediate reforms within the Department of Defense. I want to make sure that no family has to go through the pain and suffering that Spc. Panipinto's family has faced."
The accident investigation revealed that the "right-hand side tread of Panipinto's M2A3 came off, which caused his vehicle to roll over," according to the letter Buchanan sent to Esper.
Buchanan, who recently sent similar letters to the leadership of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, said that Panipinto's mother, Kimberly Weaver, told him that the 20-year-old soldier did not have a license to drive a Bradley before the road test.
Current regulations require three days of classroom instruction and two days of hands-on driving experience, with an instructor, before military personnel are given licenses to drive Bradleys, Buchanan wrote in the letter.
Panipinto had only six hours of hands-on driver training and no classroom instruction when he was ordered to road-test the vehicle, the lawmaker added.
The unit's master driver told investigators that the unit's driver training program was "nonexistent," according to a news release from Buchanan's office.
"The unnamed individual went on to state, 'When I took over the program, there was nothing. I had no paperwork for any soldiers with licenses,'" according to the release. "'Soldiers came up to me and informed me that the previous master driver just gave them licenses without a 40-hour block of instruction.'"
Also, some of the communications headsets in the four M2A3s being driven were not properly functioning, Buchanan added in the letter. As a result, all crew members could not communicate with one another.
The safety pin in the driver's hatch of Panipinto's M2A3 failed, Buchanan wrote. Meanwhile, another hatch in a different Bradley was not functioning properly.
"Consequently, a soldier in that vehicle did not see Spc. Panipinto's M2A3 roll over because he was holding the broken hatch open for another crew member," the letter states.
Medical support on site was also lacking.
"Camp Humphreys did not have an on-campus hospital or even a military ambulance available to quickly transport Spc. Panipinto to a medical facility for emergency medical treatment," Buchanan wrote. "A civilian ambulance responded to the accident scene, but its medical supplies were sorely lacking."
It did not have a sufficient oxygen supply, its suction equipment stopped functioning, it didn't have a blood transfusion supply and the instruments needed to treat Panipinto were unavailable, the letter states.
The medical response was further hindered when the first on-base medical evacuation helicopter dispatched to the accident scene initially got lost and a second medevac helicopter suffered from mechanical problems, the letter adds.
Eventually, the first medevac helicopter arrived at the site 80 minutes after the accident, according to the letter.
"By the time that Spc. Panipinto arrived at a hospital, two hours after the accident, he needed nine pints of blood and five pints of plasma transfused," Buchanan wrote. "Unfortunately, he passed away later that day from the severe injuries he sustained in the accident and the prolonged delay in getting him to a hospital for emergency medical treatment."
Buchanan stressed in his letter that a "staggering 32% of active-duty military deaths were the result of training accidents" between 2006 and 2018, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
During that same time period, only 16% of service members were killed in action and, in 2017 alone, nearly four times as many service members died in training accidents than were killed in action, Buchanan wrote.
The Government Accountability Office is conducting a sweeping Army- and Marine Corps-wide investigation into vehicle training deaths. Congress mandated the probe after family members of Marine 1st Lt. Hugh Conor McDowell, who was killed in a May 2019 light armored vehicle accident, lobbied lawmakers to look at the growing number of military vehicle rollover deaths.
Military.com reached out to the Pentagon for comment on Buchanan's letter but did not receive an immediate response.
Panipinto's mother described the death of her son as an "unbearable pain" made worse by knowing "it was entirely preventable."
"Nothing is going to change the outcome for us now, but we can and should take action to prevent it from happening to other families in the future," Weaver said in the news release. "We look forward to working with Congressman Buchanan to address this issue and help save lives."
Buchanan's letter called on Esper to make the following reforms to military training:
- Take steps to strengthen and enhance current requirements for training and licensing of military drivers.
- Add a simulation training requirement to existing requirements to help ensure that new military drivers are fully ready for their driving responsibilities.
- Strengthen existing regulations governing the safe and proper working conditions of all military equipment used in training exercises.
- Take steps to make sure that there is a hospital or an emergency medical facility on-campus at every U.S. military base on foreign soil.
- Take steps to ensure that all U.S. military bases on foreign soil have properly functioning medevac helicopters and military ambulances, with appropriate emergency medical supplies available, to promptly transport and treat injured U.S. military personnel.
"The highest tribute that can be paid to the life of Spc. Panipinto is that the Defense Department will make sure that future military personnel who are injured during training exercises can quickly receive high-quality medical treatment that might help save their lives," Buchanan wrote.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.