Family members of NSF who died from heatstroke express grief and anger as COI findings emerge

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Family members of the late Corporal First Class (CFC) Dave Lee have expressed anger in the wake of the emergence of the preliminary findings of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) that looked into the National Serviceman’s untimely death.

CFC Lee was conveyed to Changi General Hospital (CGH) on 18 April after an 8km fast march at Bedok Camp. The Guardsman from the 1st Battalion Singapore Guards fell into a coma and spent 12 days at CGH’s Intensive Care Unit as his condition worsened, before he passed away at 5.32pm on Monday, a mere 10 days after his 19th birthday.

On Monday, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen revealed in Parliament that the COI found that training lapses and inadequate casualty management contributed to the NSF’s death.

It was revealed that CFC Lee was given rigorous training the day before his collapse, when he was made to run laps at a pace faster than his running ability with a rest time shorter than what was officially stipulated. Later that night, CFC Lee’s platoon was punished for “perceived lack of teamwork and use of mobile phones after Lights Out” and were made to do tough physical activity before they were allowed to sleep.

This informal punishment was unauthorised. It also interrupted the seven hours of uninterrupted rest that is stipulated for all soldiers to take after physical exertion.

CFC Lee’s mother flagged that she was the one who highlighted the tekan session to the army. Speaking to reporters shortly after the COI findings were released, Mrs Jasmine Lee told reporters that her son’s last words on the night before his collapse were: “‘We just tio tekan!’…I was aware of the tekan session all this while and I was the one who reported it to army.”

The COI reported that CFC Lee was spotted looking disoriented as he walked back to the company line after completing an 8km fast march the next day. He was reportedly attended to by commanders and cover medics immediately but his collapse was initially incorrectly assessed to be physical exhaustion and he was inadequately treated.

It was only when his condition did not improve, that he was evacuated to Bedok Camp Medical Centre and administered two fast IV drips and underwent two cycles in the Body Cooling Unit.CFC Lee did not respond to treatment when he was subsequently evacuated to Changi General Hospital.

This was a major lapse since full body cooling should have been administered as soon as heatstroke symptoms are present and not longer than 30 minutes after symptoms show.

While it was not able to precisely pinpoint the cause of Lee’s heatstroke, the COI pointed to “accumulated fatigue, insufficient rest, Lee’s less than optimal state of health and his potential use of medication” as contributory factors. It added that the likely reasons for Lee succumbing to heat stroke were “inadequate on-site casualty management and delayed evacuation.”

Minister Ng revealed that relevant personnel have been removed from command, pending the investigation, and that those found responsible will be punished.

Calling the delay in evacuating her son to receive appropriate medical treatment “insane,” 47-year-old Mrs Lee said, “I seriously don’t understand why it could even (have) happened.” She further asserted that the disciplinary action taken against those responsible should be “significant enough” to deter future such tekan sessions

Revealing that the past few months without her son have been “hell,” Mrs Lee added: “I see army boys and boys of Dave’s age every day…Maybe tears collected can form a reservoir by now. I just want to let all officers involved know that my son meant the world to me; my family portraits will never be complete.”

Meanwhile, CFC Lee’s aunt, Cecilia Yeo, lambasted the military on Facebook as the COI findings emerged and said that she cannot believe that such lapses can occur in the army. Ms Yeo asked whether the incidents that led to her nephew’s death is part of the culture of the SAF and questioned whether the higher-ups turn a blind eye to what happens on the ground:

“‘Initially thought to be suffering from physical exhaustion’, from showing signs at 8.35am, to 9.50am when he reached the hospital, it is a long delay. You don’t take a life lightly and no excuse to misjudge for such long timing. Even when u see a stranger feeling unwell on the street, u call an ambulance and send him in just to be sure.
I am in disbelief that so many wrong doing can happened in the Army. Why are the officers so blatant in disregarding the system? Are they not afraid that their supervisor will in turn punish them for the breach? Or were they confident of escaping responsibility because it is a culture they inherited? Are people at the top turning a blind eye until tragedy happens? #SAF#ChiefofArmy, are you aware of what’s happening on the ground and can you accept that a life is lost because of your lack of control on compliance to your rules?
1. Safety breach
2. Unauthorised punishment
3. Leaders who are not trained to identify heat stroke symptoms
4. Worse still untrained to administer help correctly even after identifying symptoms
5. Ignorant leaders who assume a common army injury – heat stroke, as PHYSICAL EXHAUSTION. THIS CAN’T BE!”

In an earlier post, just after Minister Ng revealed the COI findings, Ms Yeo called for those responsible for the tekan session to be duly dealt with and for those who “deprived” her nephew of appropriate medical treatment to be given “severe punishment”:

“Many of my friends praised my sister’s strength and calmness from the news report they read. But as family we see and feel her pain and tears every single day.
“The officers who carried out unauthorised punishment the night before should be duely dealt with. Leaders must be punished hard when they knowingly break a rule and bullied the newbies, especially when these young lives trusted and believed these leaders are role models of discipline and integrity!
And to the one who deprived Dave of due medical treatment, I still can’t comprehend how you can watched Dave suffered for hours and not give the medical help he needed. You killed a promising young life and the family has to suffer in grief for the rest of our lives. Misjudgement and coldbloodness is a thin line, severe punishment must be given to avoid a repeat of another tragedy.”

CFC Lee’s mother has revealed that he family is still deciding what to do when the police investigations conclude. She added: “No matter what we do, Dave is gone.”

The late NSF’s father, Mr Dennis Lee, lamented on Facebook: “My dear son Dave’s today you have leave our family 100 day, yesterday the finding is out and I till now still cannot believe that when you need medical attention yet someone stop and deprived you for the treatment. I very sorry and sad that I unable to help and save you when you need me most on that moment. Daddy love you and miss you”

NSF who died of heatstroke was inaccurately assessed and inadequately treated: COI reveals