Monday, April 22, 2013

Reactions to Coroner's Inquiry into the death of Private Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron

A soldier in the Third Generation Singapore Armed Forces (3G SAF) is said to be able to carry the firepower of the SAF in his backpack* when connected by wireless to its command and control network.

But the SAF combat medic cannot claim to be able to carry an SAF medical centre outfield. Pity.

Lack of proper equipment can be partly compensated by competent immediate response skills which can rapidly come to grips with a medical emergency.

A competent medic can either administer life-saving treatment on the spot or alert the next level of medical intervention of the type of emergency situation they should brace themselves for.

When your medic lacks both equipment and training, this is indeed a sorry state of affairs and a tragedy waiting to unfold.

A year after full-time National Serviceman Private Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron died during urban assault training, his family sat in for the Coroner's Inquiry today to hear how the young soldier spent his last moments on earth.

Earlier this month, they marked his birthday in quiet reflection.

Last week, they marked his first death anniversary.

His fellow soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (3 SIR), who served alongside PTE Dominique, paid for a newspaper obituary last Wednesday to mark the first year of his passing.

Having interviewed many next-of-kin of SAF servicemen who died during training, I can tell you the heartbreak never leaves some families, even years after the fateful incident.

For PTE Dominique's loved ones to listen to his officers' version of events today must have opened painful wounds and unearthed memories that his family cherish and treasure deeply.

As someone with more than a passing interest in the SAF and what it stands for, it came as a surprise to learn from the television news that the SAF medic on the scene was neither trained nor equipped to handle asthmatic cases. I am hoping I got it wrong.

That revelation was all the more stunning, considering that the SAF medical professionals (regulars and NSF) I accompanied on four overseas operations to Taiwan, Timor Leste, the Northern Arabian Gulf and to post-tsunami Indonesia, accomplished their mission under austere conditions admirably.

To be sure, a person can die of more causes than most laypersons can imagine.

But are there not certain causal factors that medical science, forensics records and past tragedies would have red-flagged as areas to watch out for?

Sudden cardiac death is one. Uncontrolled bleeding from penetrating or non-penetrating trauma is another.

We lost a number of SAF personnel to lightning strikes in the 1970s and 1980s before the Cat 1 weather warning regime finally took root.

Then there is heat exhaustion to watch out for and allergic reactions attributable to assorted causes.

One wonders why asthma, which is somewhat commonplace among our young today, apparently failed to register as something our combat medics should be trained and equipped to handle.

If the answer doesn't surface during the Coroner's Inquiry, one would expect the Ministry of Defence and SAF to have the smarts and moral courage to do what it takes to restore public confidence.

My thoughts and prayers go out to PTE Dominique's family.

* The phrase was coined by me in a commentary published by the 90 cents newspaper. It was picked up by DM's speech writers who used it during an SAF Day interview. At the time, I felt it was a well-earned moniker after the SAF showed what it could do with its battlefield management system during one of its war games.


bigfunk said...

Hi David,
I disagree with the statement, medics are trained to handle breathing difficulties with the basic equipment they have on their backs. The combat medic on scene may not have ventolin or an 02 tank. (some one can check if this is required) but he has a bag valve mask and airway guerdels. The situation may have been overwhelming for a newly minted medic, but the SAF has equipped medics with enough equipment to handle common situations. I am saddened too by his statement as it casts doubts on the capabilities of every medic.

Anonymous said...

I served NS between 2007 and 2009, and during that period, i have participated in numerous outfield exercises, both as a trainer and also as an instructor.

From my experience, it is not uncommon that more than 2 smoke grenades are thrown to create a smoke screen, and on numerous occasions i have witnessed that Participants tagged for their history with Asthma, do have difficulties.

I just want to point out that something the safety officer's objectives are not in line with his purpose. Many times i have seen even the supervising officer overruling safety protocol to fullfill other objectives.

Objectives like; completing training on time, completing training before weather gets bad, the need to expend the necessary number of ammunition (smoke grenades included; as there is some difficulty in returning ammunition) etc.

Anonymous said...

"...the need to expend the necessary number of ammunition (smoke grenades included; as there is some difficulty in returning ammunition) ..."


Not only in SAF, but in any of the civilian establishments... bureaucratic SOPs created obstacles, even smart and conscientious scholars also learn how to siam lah, don't talk about farmers...

Anonymous said...

There is no statement that the commander is trying to expend the ammo nor talks fo excess ammo. It is just simply that more smoke grenades are deployed due to lack of wind support. Though the commander make a correct operational decision but rather lack safety sense. Second thoughts will realised more smoke grenade in a confined space will increase health risk such as smoke particles, blasts, loud noise etc.

Ong said...

Please do understand that many a times, commander will deviate from normal proccedures to suite ground conditions. This applies to all instances. You dun just go around executing operations from a book. E'g, more artilley round are fired, more 76MM Oto Melara round are expended than planned. It is common that commander may decision on the ground to suit circumstances. You cannot blame a commander for that. But in this case, the decision does not factor in safety. When I do peacekeeping in Timor, LSVs were used for first time as it better suit road conditions. If an accident happen, does it mean the commander head must roll?

Anonymous said...

@Anon 24 apr 11.26am,

no statement of expending excess ammo doesnt mean it didnt happen lah... seriously, u got serve NS or not?? everything army do must be tactical.. like u said, blame the wind, blame cat1, blame sitrep, blame the tree, blame the sky, blame the earth, blame got bees... whatever u want to do is possible, just dont get caught...

like some posters have said, in SAF most of the time, ppl just want to complete the objective, no samula, serve and f off... when that happens everything else is secondary...

Anonymous said...

In this case no, the commander was not trained to know that extra smoke will kill persons with asthma. His training has failed him.

Maybe the medical classification system has also failed the deceased. There are other combat vocations that he could have been assigned to.

Anonymous said...

blame want to scare wild boar, blame got snake, blame realistic training, blame smoke grenade faulty ownself expended... when you are out in the field, who can verify??

just dont get caught and pray nothing happen.. everytime ppl are out in the field and doing exercise, we are rolling the dice and this is how saf have been operating since day 1. this is a fact..

Anonymous said...

Why are NSmen with asthma serving in combat role? Is this the norm these days?

Also, if smoke grenades are involved, I thought they should have been given exemption and it is probably also the men's responsibility to inform and remind the training officers?

Pardon my questions, out of Army ages ago so unsure of today's directives.

Anonymous said...

All these are you assumptions. It is just a straight forward case whereby the ground commander exercise bad judgement during the exercise. There is no case of expending excess ammo or deliberate attempt to injure the guy. If he want to expend the access the ammo, he will do it at the end of the execrise.

Ong said...

Are you raped in army before? U all seems hate army to the core!! How good are you all when you are Section Commander yourself? U all never make mistakes before? It is just lucky that no soldier died under your charge only!! Talk is cheap!!Is easy to blame others & tell them how to do but what if you do it yourself?? I myself make several mistakes also. When I served in East Timor, I pledged to bring back all my men back alive in one piece. I count myself lucky that nothing happen to them!!!

Anonymous said...

If all commanders are as safe as you, then good lah. But obviously not.

You yourself made the statement that you count yourself lucky! As long as luck is the attitude of the SAF, chances will be taken and deaths will continue!

We all know corners are cut- things like expending surplus ammo DURING the exercise and talking your way out if something happens. Not saying it happened in this case, but if you claim it does not happen at all, I put it to you that you are blind or lying.

The witness statement showed numerous breaches of SOP. The maximum is two grenades per exercise, so each unit was only indented two. But another unit's training was cancelled due to weather and the commander took over their grenades. He circumvented procedure. Why don't YOU tell us if this was a necessary risk or needless death?

Some of us have higher authority and responsibility than you. But nothing happened under our charge because we don't take risks or worse, needless risks like this!

Anonymous said...

Where you get this statement from

"The maximum is two grenades per exercise, so each unit was only indented two. But another unit's training was cancelled due to weather and the commander took over their grenades. "?

Anonymous said...

From David's previous blog entry.

Anonymous said...

Point out to Ong that DM Ng says safety is the commander's responsibility and there is no place for unsafe officers in the SAF. Mindef has also found many unsafe practices and culture recently. Men's lives are not for YOU to risk.

Dr Ng said that the COI was “unable to establish with certainty” whether Private Lee’s asthma condition had contributed to his death, saying that the effects of zinc chloride on asthmatics were not well-documented in medical literature. He said that such smoke grenades, which have been used by the SAF since the 1970s, are safe to use if training safety regulations are observed.

However, a simple Google search by TR Emeritus (TRE) has found this document provided by the New Jersey Department of Health & Senior Services (DHSS) [Link]. The document lists industries where work-related asthma has been identified, and the asthmagens (asthma-causing agents) associated with each. It clearly identifies zinc chloride as an asthmagen.

It was discovered that the jeep driver was not licensed to drive the vehicle and that the two rear passengers, one of whom was Third Sergeant Tan, were not wearing their helmets or lap belts. It was also found that the Combat Intelligence School had a “weak safety structure” and in the course of its investigations, other instances of unlicensed driving were found.

Dr Ng said that MINDEF has since removed the Commanding Officer of the Combat Intelligence School from his command. Other personnel who were relieved include the Head of the Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition Wing, the School Sergeant Major, the exercise Supervising Officer, and the exercise Conducting Officer.

Vehicular management systems at all SAF units have since been tightened.

“Any commander who ignores safety regulations, whether wilfully or negligently, puts his soldiers at risk and is not fit for command,” said Dr Ng. “These two deaths could have been avoided if safety instructions had been followed”.

Anonymous said...

When I served my NS in 90s and 10 years of reservist, we defintely threw more than 2 smoke grenades. We also help to expend ammo from other platoons for whatever reasons. When u fight a war, you do not just limit to 2 smoke grenades or standard ammo. You fire as per situation requirement. Based on the ruling means we have violated all proccedures despite reaching our combat objectives.

Ong said...

I have been deployed in PK ops before. I will not hesitate to empty my mag onto any fugger who dare harm my men. Luckily I did not have to do that. My men trust me same as I trust my commander. They are fighting for me same as I fight for them. Before keyboard warriors critise the commander, have you ever fought in real ops before?

Anonymous said...

OK. Then go and violate procedures, that is, gamble on luck. Luck does not last. When something happens, your head will be on the block.

Ong said...

It is not just a reckless act but rather calculated risk, If it is in a super confined area, you should not throw even 1 smoke grenade. SAF already clarified there is no limit of smoke grenades to be thrown. Likewise there is no limit how much rounds you can shoot to bring a fugger down. If you need to expend a full mag to get the job done then go ahead.

Anonymous said...

"Before keyboard warriors critise the commander, have you ever fought in real ops before?"

going by ur logic.. even our def minister cannot make any comments on this.

and i assume you are a soldier all your life and that is your expertise. i suggest you refrain from commenting on other things in life like the economy, finance, food, movies etc etc.. coz if you say,for eg: "this movie sucks!!" a movie producer will come out to say: have you made a movie before??.

wat a joke!

Anonymous said...

How about we don't vote then? Because we are not politicians, we are not qualified to judge on politics.

Anonymous said...

3 Marines were just relieved over a mortar accident. Veterans who deployed multiple times but they were still judged for their mistake. But maybe ong knows better than them because he has been to East Timor.

Re-minisce said...

Three years too late, but the point here is that saf medics aren't trained to handle exceptional situations and not common problems. Bronchospasm from severe asthma is such an example when you need bronchodilators like salbutamol or the patient dies. Laryngospasm from acute allergy is another situation when a bvm doesn't quite cut it and you need an epi pen.