Lapses and breaches of SAF rules uncovered in NSman's heat injury death: Ng Eng Hen

Lapses and breaches of SAF rules uncovered in NSman's heat injury death: Ng Eng Hen
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - Lapses and breaches of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) regulations were uncovered in full-time national serviceman Corporal First Class (CFC) Dave Lee Han Xuan's heat injury death, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament on Monday (Aug 6).

Unauthorised physical punishment of about 30 minutes was meted out to the full-time national serviceman's platoon the night before his fast march, compromising the required rest time.

The next day, there was inadequate on-site casualty management after CFC Lee's fast march, and his evacuation to the medical centre was delayed.

CFC Lee, who was a Guardsman from the 1st Battalion Singapore Guards, died on April 30 this year, two weeks after being admitted to Changi General Hospital for heatstroke.

He had completed an 8km fast march in Bedok Camp on April 18 before he showed signs of heat injury and had to be hospitalised.

The 19-year-old had also been taking medication in weeks prior to the fast march for acute upper respiratory tract infection after visiting a doctor on March 31.

These were the possible contributory factors in CFC Lee's death due to heat stroke in April, Dr Ng said as he gave the preliminary assessment of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) convened to look into the incident.

He said the COI found that the death was the result of heat stroke leading to multiple organ injury, with no physical injury sustained as verified by the autopsy report.

Corporal First Class Dave Lee Han Xuan died on April 30, 2018, after he suffered heatstroke.

Tearful send-off for 19-year-old NSF in military funeral

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    Soldiers, friends and family members paid their last respects to Corporal First Class Dave Lee Han Xuan, who was accorded a military funeral on Saturday (May 5).

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    Pallbearers carrying the coffin into the service hall at Mandai Crematorium.

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    The wake, held at CFC Lee's home in Jurong East, was attended by over 50 army personnel, including Chief Guards Officer Colonel Seet Uei Lim. The cortege left the family's home at about 1.25pm for Mandai Crematorium.

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    CFC Lee died on Monday, close to two weeks after being admitted to Changi General Hospital for heatstroke. He later received a posthumous promotion from private to corporal first class.

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    Parents and elder sister of the late Dave Lee at the press conference ,from left seated :are Madam Jasmine Yeo ; Mr Dennis Lee and Ms Lee Han You, Joey, 23.

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    Full-time national serviceman Dave Lee Han Xuan died on April 30, two weeks after being admitted to Changi General Hospital for heatstroke. He later received a posthumous promotion from private to corporal first class.

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    In a Facebook post on Thursday (May 3), the Singapore Army said Corporal First Class Lee "impacted lives of soldiers in more than one way".

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    In a Facebook post on Thursday (May 3), the Singapore Army said Corporal First Class Lee "impacted lives of soldiers in more than one way".

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    A woman identified Pte Lee as her nephew shared the first post, seeking clarity from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). She also uploaded a photo expressing the profound loss felt by the family. 

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    An independent committee has been formed to look into the circumstances that led to the death of the full-time national serviceman.

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    Mr Dennis Lee ( father of the late Dave Lee) seen at the wake of NSF Dave Lee who died from heatstroke.

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    NS men seen after their last respect at the wake of NSF Dave Lee who died from heatstroke.

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While the COI was unable to ascertain the direct causes that caused CFC Lee to suffer from heat stroke, it noted the possible contributory causes were "accumulated fatigue, insufficient rest, as well as CFC Lee's less than optimal state of health and his potential use of medication".

"However, the COI's preliminary assessment was that the likely reasons for CFC Lee succumbing to heat stroke were inadequate on-site casualty management and delayed evacuation to the medical centre," said Dr Ng.

He said relevant persons involved in CFC Lee's case have been removed from command and could face criminal charges from Attorney-General's Chambers, or military prosecution.

However, no evidence of foul play or medical negligence has been found, said Dr Ng, giving a detailed account of circumstances surrounding CFC Lee's death.

ALSO READ: 5 SCDF personnel to be charged over death of NSF found in fire station pump well after ragging incident

First, during a training run a day before the April 18 fast march, CFC Lee ran a slightly faster pace than required, with a shorter rest time in between each lap than stipulated in the lesson plan.

Dr Ng said: "These deviations were a breach of training safety regulations. The reason given was that the commander(s) wanted to enhance fitness and foster greater cohesion by keeping the platoon intact, and the soldiers running at the same pace, not in groups."

Second, unauthorised informal punishment was dished out to CFC Lee's platoon the night before the fast march, said Dr Ng.

This meant that the seven hours of uninterrupted rest required was compromised.

The scout platoon were told to assemble in their No. 4 uniform and assault bags, as the commander had wanted to punish them for a perceived lack of teamwork and the use of mobile phones after lights out, despite repeated warnings.

At about 9.45pm, informal punishment was given for about 30 minutes in the form of physical exercises, such as bear crawls, sprints, leopard crawls, push-ups and crunches. They also had water poured over them during the session, which ended with the troopers reciting the Guards creed a few times in a high kneel position.

They were sent back to their bunks at about 10.30pm.

Dr Ng said: "The COI noted that the relevant commanders did not seek prior approval for the conduct of this informal punishment or inform their superiors after the punishment."

After news broke of CFC Lee's death, there was speculation online that he and his fellow trainees were punished the night before the fast march.

At his funeral in May (2018), CFC Lee's mother, Madam Jasmine Yeo, then called for outdated traditional "tekan", or punishment sessions, to be put to an immediate stop.

For the 8km fast march the next day, the COI found the conduct of the fast march was in line with SAF regulations, except for the lack of seven hours of rest the night before.

CFC Lee had taken his temperature before the march, measuring 36.3 degrees celsius, and was observed to be fine.

He was the last person to complete the fast march, in about 100 minutes, including a 20-minute break, and appeared to be disoriented.

Personnel that attended to him had unbuttoned his uniform, gave him water and applied ice packs a his vital points.

But cooling measures were inadequate, said Dr Ng, citing the failure to use an on-site IV drop, and the improper placement of ice packs.

When his condition did not improve, CFC Lee was evacuated to the medical centre.

"However, there was a significant gap between the onset of symptoms and his arrival at the medical centre," said Dr Ng.

CFC Lee was semi-conscious when he arrived at Bedok Camp Medical Centre, with a temperature of 42.7 degrees Celsius.

Two bags of fast IV drops were administered and he was placed in the Body Cooling Unit for two cycles, but he did not respond to the treatment.

The medical officer then decided to evacuate him to Changi General Hospital, where he was admitted to the intensive care unit.

Dr Ng said: "The delay in evacuation resulted as the persons attending to CFC Lee mistook his signs and symptoms as due to physical exhaustion. Though trained, they had never encountered any previous case of heat injury themselves."

The minister added that CFC Lee was an exemplary soldier who served with commitment and was well-respected by his peers for his positive attitude. "The loss of such a good soldier like CFC Lee is deeply grievous to us," he said.

"Zero training deaths must be the norm and any mishap should be vigorously attended to by commanders to achieve this norm."

An external review panel on SAF safety - chaired by director of MMA Offshore Heng Chiang Gnee - said it agreed with the COI's preliminary findings.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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