SINGAPORE - A full-time national serviceman who died during a navigation exercise in 2011 had an undetected heart condition that caused cardiac failure, a coroner's court heard on Wednesday.
Specialist Cadet Ee Chun Sheng, 21, was at the end of a two-day, 60km exercise with a team of three others when the incident happened on Aug 2.
Sgt Ee's teammates "broke contact" with him shortly after 4pm that day to push on to the final checkpoint, with an understanding that he would catch up.
But after the trio reached the checkpoint, Sgt Ee did not show up and was reported missing.
The court heard that he had complained that morning about blisters on his feet. They were bandaged by a medic, and Sgt Ee said he wanted to continue with the exercise.
A search party found that he had collapsed in the Ama Keng training area at about 5pm. He was not breathing.
He was taken to Tengah Air Base Medical Centre and later to National University Hospital at 6.32pm. He was pronounced dead at 9.03pm.
State Coroner Imran Abdul Hamid noted pathologists had said the death was due to a "natural disease process", but he would not rule out heat stroke because of the strenuous nature of the mission.
While he did not detect any safety lapses, and noted that Sgt Ee had completed a series of increasingly long marches in the lead-up to the exercise, he was concerned about aspects of the exercise.
He added that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) should clarify what it means to "break contact" with one's teammates.
"To my mind, breaking contact in the context of an exercise involves an element of accident or unintentional breaking contact," he said, noting that there was an "incentive" for trainees to be "gunning for the last checkpoint" as they would be able to return to camp to rest rather than be picked up the next day if they complete the exercise by 6pm.
"If there is any ambiguity, perhaps the SAF will define it.
"Whether you call it breaking contact or leaving a teammate behind, the fact remains that the deceased had no teammate to take care of him. With the benefit of hindsight, I do not think it was the prudent course of action for the teammates to take," he said.
He also noted that the compulsory electrocardiogram Sgt Ee had during his pre-enlistment did not pick up his heart condition while a different test called the echocardiogram might have.
As a result, Sgt Ee was assigned the highest Physical Employment Status (PES) rating of PES A. A soldier's PES rating determines what vocations, and hence training, he is fit for.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.