Kimberly Weaver and Addie Hayes bonded earlier this year over a common tragedy: they both lost sons in separate Bradley fighting vehicle accidents in 2019.
Weaver's son, Spc. Nicholas Panipinto of Bradenton, Florida, died when the Bradley he was driving rolled over during a Nov. 6, 2019 road test at Camp Humphreys, South Korea. Hayes' son, Spc. Octavious Deshon Lakes Jr., of Buford, Georgia died Jan. 14, 2019 when his Bradley rolled off of a cliff in the rugged terrain of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.
Both soldiers were assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division's 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team commanded by Col. Kevin Capra, Weaver told Military.com in a recent interview.
"I was talking to her and we were going back and forth and I was like, 'Oh my God, I just realized that our kids were both at the National Training Center at the same time," Weaver said, referring to one of the Army's largest training hubs at Ft. Irwin, Calif.
Weaver, Hayes and a handful of other parents of service members who died recently in military vehicle accidents are joining together to call for changes to safety procedures during training to prevent future deadly accidents, Weaver said.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Florida, earlier this month called for the House Armed Services Committee to hold a public hearing examining the "disturbing rise in deadly training accidents," naming Panipinto's death, as well as the July 30 Marine Assault Amphibious Vehicle accident off the California coast that killed eight Marines and one Navy sailor.
Weaver said she can't help but wonder if her son's death is linked to Fort Hood since the base has been under investigation in connection with the disappearance and apparent murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen earlier this year. The tragedy has also cast light on dozens of other deaths linked to the post this year.
Fort Hood spokesman Christopher Haug told Military.com that 11 of the 26 deaths so far in 2020 have been linked to accidents involving both on and off-post training incidents, as well as privately owned vehicles. Accidental deaths at Fort Hood are actually down in 2020, he said, from 15 in 2019. In all, 39 Fort Hood soldiers died last year.
"Pardon my words, but it's a s--- show," Weaver said. "What is going on over there?"
Hayes also said she was shocked to realize that her son and Weaver's were from the same Fort Hood unit.
Hayes said she remembers the accident investigation brief she received from Capra in January, "a whole year" after her son's death.
The report found no negligence, even though her son's Bradley rolled off of a 20-foot cliff during a night mission in rainy, foggy conditions at NTC.
Hayes remembers asking why the route had not been examined ahead of the mission.
"Where was the recon?" Hayes said. "I had my [active-duty military] cousin in the briefing, as well and that's all my cousin kept asking. And no one could answer that."
The investigation concluded that Lakes was "not properly restrained based on the seat belt in the driver's station being present and operational with no sight of damage."
While Hayes has her doubts about that, knowing her son, she pointed out that the investigation also noted that the unit's culture "[did] not enforce the mandatory wear of the seat belt in military vehicles."
"What is sad about it is, no mother, no parent should have to go through losing a child like this ... I can see if they are overseas and they're fighting a war ... that I can accept, but during training I cannot accept that," said Hayes, who said she sent an email to Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asking that "changes be made to all training sites."
She said she has yet to receive a response.
"Commanders and NCOs need to make sure it is safe for these soldiers to go on missions without losing their lives."
As for Capra, Hayes said she doesn't place the blame on him.
"He oversees ... thousands of soldiers, so the commanders that are underneath him, it is their responsibility to make sure that they are doing what they are supposed to do to make sure their soldiers are safe," Hayes said. "He can't be at all these places at the same time."
Weaver met with Capra Aug. 23 to receive her final brief on the investigation report. The meeting also included a casualty assistance calls officer, an Army legal adviser for the command and a chaplain.
"They said a prayer first, which is almost strategic now that I think back -- you know, they get you choked up and then they go over everything we already knew," Weaver said.
The right-side tread of Panipinto's Bradley had come off, and caused the massive vehicle to roll over, the officials said.
"They keep saying he failed to slow when approaching the turn, that he took the turn too fast and that speed was a factor," Weaver said. "But there is no vehicle inspection to show why the track came off. because the track did come off."
Weaver said Capra told her that it had been "raining, so the side of the road was soft."
"I stopped him mid-sentence; I was like, 'No, it wasn't.' Because I already looked back at the weather and it had not rained at all that entire week," Weaver said.
In response to a request for an interview, Capra released a written statement saying that the two accidents "were two distinct and separate occurrences" that happened in "separate units in a brigade combat team of over 4,000 Soldiers, with both deaths occurring under vastly different circumstances."
"The deaths of Spc. Octavious Lakes Jr. and Spc. Nicholas Panipinto were terrible tragedies and our thoughts and prayers continue to be with their family, friends and loved ones," Capra wrote.
"Although we know that nothing can replace Octavious and Nicholas, we have done our best to provide information to the families, help them understand all of the circumstances involved in the passing of their loved ones, and continue to help them find the answers to their continued questions."
Panipinto had received very little driver training before the road test, and was not prepared to drive such a massive vehicle, the investigation showed. In addition, there were malfunctions of the vehicle's communication systems, a lack of medical services on base and significant delays in medical response to the scene of the accident.
"But [Capra] did say there were several failures; he even used the word negligent," Weaver said. "They said they were sorry."
Weaver said Capra appeared distraught and that his hands were shaking during the meeting.
"I don't want to ruin his life; I just want change," Weaver said. "I want change, so it doesn't happen again, that's all."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.