It was one of half a dozen training accidents reported in 2019 concerning Fort Hood units.
The mother of one Fort Hood soldier said it never should have happened.
On Nov. 6, 2019, Spc. Nicholas C. Panipinto, 20, of Bradenton, Florida, died from injuries sustained in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle rollover at Camp Humphreys in South Korea. He had been deployed to South Korea with the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.
His mother, Kimberly Weaver, of Bradenton, Florida, said that from information she has received from the Army, the unit’s Army Regulation 15-6 investigation report, a string of mistakes led to her son’s death.
The Herald has requested a full copy of the unit report, but has not received it yet. Weaver scanned portions of the copy of the report she received and sent them to the Herald.
“It wasn’t a training accident: It was an order to road test an M2A3 (Bradley) out of maintenance without a mechanic and a very inexperienced soldier driving,” Weaver told the Herald by email.
Panipinto had apparently just been moved from his position as a dismount to Bradley driver, according to the unit investigation report Weaver received. A dismount is an infantryman or cavalry scout who normally just uses the Bradley as a means of transportation and performs their duties on foot, outside of the vehicle.
“He had not completed any of the required classroom training and had only received six hours of the hands-on driver training,” Weaver said. “There are several sworn statements (from the report) that (the unit was) ‘handing out licenses without the required training.’”
One of those sworn statements she sent to the Herald was from the unit’s master driver, who is responsible for training troops on vehicles and licensing them to drive them. In that sworn statement, known as a Department of the Army Form 2823, the master driver — whose name is redacted — states that the unit’s driver training program was “nonexistent.”
“When I took over the program there was nothing, I had no paperwork for any soldiers with licenses. Soldiers came up to me and informed me that the previous master driver just gave them licenses without a 40 hour block of instruction,” the statement says.
The unit master driver also stated in the report that he was unsure of how much experience driving a Bradley that Panipinto may have had, saying he or she “thought” it may have been six months to a year.
The master driver went on to say that following the accident, the unit did not hold a safety stand down, which is a break from normal duties in order to discuss safety procedures.
One of the documents sent by Weaver was the memorandum to the commanding general of the 2nd Infantry Division, Camp Humphreys concerning the findings and recommendations of the unit investigation.
In the findings, the string of mistakes may have begun with Panipinto not being qualified to drive the vehicle in the first place, but the soldier in charge of the road test of the vehicle continued those mistakes.
Two vehicles were a part of the test.
On page 2 of the memorandum, it states that there was no safety or route brief given to the soldiers before they began the road test. There was no inspection of the vehicles, nor were the unit’s commander, executive officer or master driver informed the vehicles were leaving the staging area, called a motor pool, before they left. The unit’s standard procedure was to have them sign off on a movement first.
Next, they deviated from the published route to conduct a vehicle road test. The unit’s published route was to leave the motor pool, go to the wash rack area, turn around and come back. Instead, they went to a training range, which was in use by another unit, that they did not have permission to use.
Speed was another factor, although it was disputed in some of the sworn statements included in the documents Weaver sent. The memorandum says that while they cannot state the exact speed, they believe Panipinto may have been driving between 28 and 40 kph, or roughly 17 to 25 mph. The speed limit for the training area is 10 to 25 kph, or 6 to 15 mph.
The disputing sworn statements state they believe he was only driving approximately 15 mph.
In paragraph 2(c) of the memorandum, it states that the accident occurred when Panipinto made a left turn. He missed the paved road with the right side tracks of the vehicle, putting the vehicle at an incline while the right side tracks began to dig into soft dirt next to the road. As he continued to turn left, the right track dug into the dirt further, causing the track to “jump” and the vehicle to roll.
Upon impact, the driver hull/hatch came down on Panipinto’s head, trapping him in the driver’s position when the vehicle came to rest, upside down.
While the report does state that the vehicle was up to standard, Weaver said she believes something may have been wrong with the Bradley.
“(Army representatives) have verbally told me that the safety department had inspected the vehicle and found nothing mechanically wrong with it,” Weaver said.
“When I asked where it was now, he said the safety department took it and he wasn’t sure where it was. However, the track was off on the back passenger side and that obviously shows that one of the drive-line components must have failed in some sort of way. A 27 ton tank shouldn’t roll on flat ground going 15 mph around a turn. It was the combination of the track coming off in the turn that rolled them. None of the vehicle inspection process or findings were in the 15-6 report,” she said about a call she had with an Army investigator.
Weaver said the Army investigation concluded that her son must have been driving faster than 15 mph, because they used another Bradley to make the turn and had no problems.
“I’m not sure how that conclusion can be made when the track came off. It would stop one side and speed up the other, causing a rollover. Each side works independently of the other,” she said, according to her opinion.
The communication headsets were also not working, the hatches, latches and doors were not fully functional and the driver hatch safety pin failed, causing the hatch to come down on her son’s head, according to some of the sworn statements included in the report.
It is incidents such as this that caused the Government Accountability Office to open an investigation last October into ground vehicle accidents in both the Army and Marine Corps.
The scope of the investigation could potentially cover the flash-flood rollover that killed nine people in an Army truck during a training accident on Fort Hood on June 2, 2016.
An inexperienced driver was also involved during that training accident, when a Light/Medium Tactical Vehicle, or LMTV, attempted to cross Owl Creek during convoy training. A flash flood hit the vehicle while it was attempting to make the crossing, causing it to overturn, leading to nine deaths and three serious injuries.
The Army’s report from the investigation into the Fort Hood accident was heavily redacted when released to the public. The Herald tried for three years to get a copy of the report that revealed the pertinent information on the accident, but the Army in 2019 ultimately denied the request. The findings were never fully revealed.
Since January 2015, there have been at least 22 vehicle accidents on Fort Hood and another six involving Fort Hood units deployed overseas, resulting in 13 deaths and multiple injuries.
The GAO investigation will analyze all accidents involving the two military services that operate the largest tactical vehicle fleets in the Department of Defense, said GAO spokesman Charles Young.
The coronavirus restrictions have not had an effect on the investigation, he said in a May 12 email.
“We have not set an estimated completion date as of yet,” Young said. “With regard to COVID-19, we’ve been able to continue our work under the circumstances and related restrictions. But it is a fluid event, so things could change and we’ll have to see.”
Weaver said she has become friends with the parents of several other soldiers who she says were killed needlessly in training. All of them are following the GAO investigation.
The investigation was jointly requested by the House Armed Services Committee and the House Oversight Committee in October 2019, after six members of Congress took up the issue.
“We don’t want our children to have died in vain. We can’t stay quiet when speaking up could save lives,” Weaver said.
What angers Weaver the most, however, is thinking that her son could have lived despite his injuries if the medical response had been more punctual.
Camp Humphrey’s did not have proper medical facilities at the time for it’s 42,000 soldiers and their families, according to the unit investigation report she received.
A medical evacuation helicopter was called to transport Panipinto to a trauma-level hospital, according to the memorandum. The helicopter went originally to the site where the vehicle should have been according to the unit’s procedures for a road test, instead of to the site of the actual accident.
“They had to wait 80 minutes for the original MedEvac to land. It was two hours from accident time until he was received at the hospital. He was hemorrhaging,” Weaver said, based off the timeline in the memorandum of the findings in the unit investigation. “Upon arrival, he received nine pints of blood and five pints of plasma. He was so completely drained by that time, his body could not recover from the blood loss.”
Weaver said she initially was extremely upset about the medical treatment her son received, but a second look at the report changed her mind.
“I reread the entire report, and there is conflicting information about whether the ambulance was military or civilian,” she said. “The ambulance medical equipment was there, but not in sufficient supply. There was a military field surgeon who took over the medical treatment once he arrived on scene. He brought along his medics and had them run and get replacement tanks of oxygen, a different suction device, a scalpel, etc. He did everything he could with what he had.
“That guy should be applauded. He even thought about driving Nicky to the trauma unit because it was taking so long for the helicopter to arrive. If the MedEvac would have responded in a timely manner, he would have received blood before he had completely bled out. If there had been a hospital on base, they could have gotten blood to him in the field. Accident time was (2:31 p.m.) and he was received at Ajou University Hospital at (4:27 p.m.). That is a very long time to be hemorrhaging.”
Weaver said that from reading the sworn statements in the report, the field surgeon and medics are the only reason her son did not die immediately.
“Nicholas would have died right there if it weren’t for him,” she said. “He should definitely receive recognition for his work.”
Weaver says that she and the parents of other soldiers killed in training hope the GAO findings will hold the Department of Defense accountable for the deaths of the young soldiers losing their lives in rollovers and in preventable training accidents.
“This is the story of my son, and how the Army failed him.”