Mother pushes Congress for change after son’s ‘preventable’ death in military accident

House adopts amendment to Pentagon policy bill aimed at ensuring bases have adequate emergency vehicles and supplies

Army Spc. Nicholas Panipinto died after the combat vehicle he was driving flipped and rolled over during a road test. (Courtesy of Kimberly Weaver)
Army Spc. Nicholas Panipinto died after the combat vehicle he was driving flipped and rolled over during a road test. (Courtesy of Kimberly Weaver)
Posted July 23, 2020 at 7:00am

It took nearly two hours to transport Army Spc. Nicholas Panipinto to an off-base trauma center after the combat vehicle he was driving flipped and rolled over during a road test at South Korea’s Camp Humphreys, the U.S. military’s largest overseas base.

The emergency response was plagued by a series of vehicle and equipment problems and other mishaps that delayed lifesaving treatment after the Nov. 6 accident. The 20-year-old ultimately died.

“I was just irate,” said Panipinto’s mother, Kimberly Weaver. “How do you have a base with 42,000 servicemembers and their families and no hospital? No way to get people to one?”

This week, the House passed its version of the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill, approving hundreds of amendments with little to no debate. Among them is an amendment sponsored by Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., aimed at addressing some of the missteps that led to Panipinto’s death.

The issues, says Weaver, were plentiful.

The medevac helicopter, stationed at Camp Humphreys and dispatched to the location on base where Panipinto’s M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle rolled over, lost its way and took 80 minutes to arrive. Camp Humphreys is located 40 miles south of Seoul.

A civilian ambulance staffed by Korean EMTs arrived at the scene but lacked surgical tools and ran out of oxygen while awaiting the rescue helicopter, according to an Army investigation report obtained by CQ Roll Call.

No military ambulances were available, but Army medics who were dispatched to the scene worked with the Korean ambulance team to treat Panipinto. At one point, the medics were told that the arrival of a rescue helicopter was imminent, and they moved Panipinto outside. Weaver was told that Panipinto became hypothermic in the cold November air.

Emergency personnel called for a second medevac to rescue Panipinto, but the helicopter would not start.

After the initial helicopter located Panipinto, it took 40 minutes to fly him to a South Korean trauma center. There, Panipinto received 9 pints of blood and 5 pints of plasma before dying. The average human body holds about 10 pints of blood.

Despite the delays getting Panipinto emergency care, the Army’s investigation found the medical care provided by first responders was “appropriate and comprehensive.”

Now, Buchanan’s amendment would push the military to study how to better respond to emergencies. The language specifically would require the Defense Department to examine the emergency response capabilities at all U.S. military bases and report to Congress on the feasibility of requiring bases to have properly functioning medevac helicopters and fully stocked military ambulances.

Such a congressionally required study is frequently a precursor to actual funding.

Weaver, 43, a Realtor and the owner of a landscaping business in Bradenton, Florida, started “sending congressional inquiries to everyone I could find.”

Weaver said she got in touch with Buchanan, her representative, who “took the ball and ran with it.”

“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 press release this week. “The serious deficiencies and failures identified in the report on SPC Panipinto’s death call for immediate reforms within the Department of Defense.”

‘Nonexistent’ training

Buchanan’s amendment, however, gets to just one of the issues that contributed to Panipinto's death.

Weaver questions the training that her son received, and whether he should have been driving a combat vehicle at all.

“Nicholas wasn’t licensed or trained to be driving that vehicle,” she said. “But he did what he was told. That’s what you do in the military.”

Panipinto and two other soldiers were ordered to road test the Bradley Fighting Vehicle but did so in the wrong location, according to the investigation report.

Written testimony included in the report indicates that the crew was not aware that they were on the wrong testing range and that none of them received a route or safety briefing prior to the test.

On the crew’s second loop around the testing range, the vehicle lost traction when Panipinto took a left turn incorrectly, at too high of a speed, the report says. The Bradley flipped and rolled on its side, trapping Panipinto and resulting in the “massive craniofacial injury” that contributed to his death. Panipinto’s two crew members freed him from the wreckage.

The passengers said they believed the crash was caused by a mechanical failure rather than driver error.

The report found that there were “irregularities” in the driver training program. In a letter sent to House Armed Services Committee leaders, Buchanan wrote that he read a sworn statement from the unit’s master driver, responsible for training troops on vehicles and administering licenses, that said the training program was “nonexistent.”

Military training deaths are on the rise and have become a growing concern on Capitol Hill, although there isn’t anything in this year’s House-passed bill specifically addressing rollover deaths.

A July 1 report released by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found that between 2006 and 2018, 32 percent of active-duty military deaths were the result of training accidents. And in 2017 alone, nearly four times as many servicemembers died in training accidents than in combat.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, is investigating rollover deaths at the request of the House Armed Services and Oversight and Reform committees.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense referred CQ Roll Call to Congress.

“Nobody needs to die needlessly. This is crazy,” Weaver said. “The amount of training accidents is completely unnecessary. But if we just take our folded flag and sit in a corner and cry, nothing will change.”

The House version of the defense authorization bill will head to conference committee later this year with the Senate, which is expected to vote on its version of the measure this week.

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