Army Seeks to Oust Junior Leaders, Orders Reforms after Deadly Rollover in South Korea

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U.S. Army Spc. Nicholas C. Panipinto
Army Spc. Nicholas C. Panipinto, 20, died on Nov. 6, 2019, from injuries sustained when a Bradley Fighting Vehicle overturned at Camp Humphreys. (U.S. Army photo)

CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea -- The 1st Cavalry Division has moved to oust three junior leaders and ordered reforms to its driver's training program after a 20-year-old infantryman was killed last year in a rollover accident involving a Bradley Fighting Vehicle at Camp Humphreys, the soldier's mother said Saturday.

The Fort Hood, Texas-based Army division acted after finding that Spc. Nicholas Panipinto had no license or classroom instruction and had received only six hours of hands-on training when he died during a Nov. 6 road test of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Two other soldiers were injured.

However, the changes are not enough for Panipinto's mother, Kimberly Weaver, who said her son's death had been preventable, and she believes the soldiers being punished are being used as scapegoats.

"This whole thing has just so many problems on so many different levels," she told Stars and Stripes on Saturday in a phone interview.

"Why are these three lower-level unit soldiers being thrown under the bus while the higher-ups are not being accountable when all these failures happened under their watch," she added.

Panipinto was assigned to the division's 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, which had arrived in July 2019 for a nine-month rotation in South Korea.

In addition to the training issues, it took nearly two hours to get Panipinto to a hospital due to problems with the medevac helicopters and ambulances dispatched to the site, she said.

Promising Reforms

The lapses prompted U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., to send a letter calling for reforms to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

"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 M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles," he wrote.

"According to Mrs. Weaver, Spc. Panipinto did not have a license, had only six hours of hands-on driver training and zero classroom instruction when he was ordered to road-test a M2A3," Buchanan said.

Weaver was formally briefed about the accident and actions taken by Col. Kevin Capra, the 3rd ABCT's commander, on Aug. 23.

"The company commander, platoon leader and Bradley commander received letters of reprimand and were initiated for involuntary separation" from the Army, according to a slide he provided.

"In addition, the Bradley commander received non-judicial punishment and was reduced in rank," the slide said.

All 37 companies in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team were ordered to reassess their driver's training programs, to brief battalion commanders on the status of those programs and to ensure the programs are enforced to Army standards, it said.

The slide also said U.S. Forces Korea, the main command on the divided peninsula, has ordered an examination into emergency medical care on all of its bases.

In a separate statement, Capra called the deaths of Panipinto and Spc. Octavious Lakes Jr., who was killed in a separate Bradley rollover in January in California, "terrible tragedies."

The investigation had "resulted in non-judicial punishment for those found at fault for actions that contributed to the incident," he said, without providing more details.

Capra expressed confidence that lessons learned from the accidents would ultimately help make training safer.

"As a result of these investigations, the unit increased its focus on driver's training; improving the quality, frequency and record keeping for the driver's training program to ensure all those operating combat vehicles were trained and licensed properly," he said.

Medical Delays

However, that was not the only problem. The M2A3 Bradley, which rolled over when its right-hand side tread came off, had a malfunctioning communication system and defective or broken equipment, Weaver said.

Combat medics did their best to treat him on the field, but an ambulance sent to the site lacked a sufficient oxygen supply and had other equipment problems.

The first medevac helicopter, meanwhile, went to the wrong place and the second had mechanical problems, Weaver said.

Camp Humphreys, which serves as the military's main headquarters in South Korea and is the largest overseas U.S. base, had recently completed the construction of a new hospital, and the state-of-the-art facility was just over a week from fully opening.

Even after it opened, the Brian D. Allgood Community Hospital, which replaced an older facility that had been closed on the former main base in Seoul, is not equipped to treat traumas so those cases are sent to a nearby South Korean hospital.

"By the time he got to the ER, they gave him nine pints of blood and five pints of plasma," Weaver said.

Buchanan has called for a congressional hearing on training accidents and sponsored an amendment to next year's defense budget requiring the Defense Department to examine emergency response capabilities at all U.S. military bases.

A Congressional Research Service report shows that 32% of active-duty military deaths between 2006 and 2018 were the result of accidents, while 16% were killed in action.

Weaver said she also will continue to fight for reforms to prevent future accidents from killing other soldiers like her son.

"He was my best friend and I can't just let him go without doing something," she said. "If we can do anything in his name to force change and save lives, then that's what I have to do."

This article is written by Kim Gamel from Stars and Stripes and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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