Inconsistent account on NSF Dave Lee’s death: letter to press

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The death of NSF Dave Lee Han Xuan is shrouded in inconsistencies and a dearth of relevant details, said a letter to the Straits Times Forum page on Friday.

While the ministerial statement on 6 August had set out in detail the events leading up to the NSF’s death, it does not say much about what took place after the serviceman was discovered have been suffering from heat injury which subsequently led to his death.

CFC Lee, 19, died from heat injury on April 30, after having been hospitalised for 2 weeks. He had completed an 8km fast march in Bedok Camp on April 18.

“The Aug 6 ministerial statement said that the likely reasons for Corporal First Class (CFC) Lee succumbing to heatstroke were inadequate on-site casualty management and delayed evacuation to the medical centre,” Ms Rachel Tan wrote in her letter to the newspaper.

“Few details were given about the casualty management provided,” she said. “Nor was the exact length of the delay disclosed. Contrast this with the wealth of detail and precise timings given about the events of the preceding day.”

While the ministerial statement said CFC Lee was not treated for heatstroke because the attending persons thought he was suffering from physical exhaustion, Ms Tan pointed out that the first aid administered included applying ice packs at vital points and pouring water on him.

These were “actions more commonly associated with heatstroke”, she said.

She added: “Significantly, the account in the Aug 6 statement differs from Mindef’s April 30 news release and a May 17 ministerial statement, in which Mindef claimed that an SAF medic attended to CFC Lee immediately to bring down his core temperature, when he displayed signs of heat injury – indicating that the medic seems to have recognised heatstroke for what it was.

“Which account is correct? Were CFC Lee’s symptoms recognised and treated as heatstroke or not?”

Ms Tan also questioned by, despite CFC Lee’s condition and the medic’s recommendation , he was not evacuated to the medical centre immediately.

“The answer may lie in one line in the Aug 6 ministerial statement: There were several suggestions for CFC Lee to be evacuated, but these calls were either not heard or not heeded,” Ms Tan suggested.

“It would appear that whatever decisions the medics had made on site for prompt evacuation were ignored or overruled by their commanders.

“This conclusion is backed up by the external review panel on SAF safety’s call for commanders to be willing to consult others and for medics to be able to exercise their professional judgment, even if it goes against that of their commanders.”

Ms Tan said “the ministerial statement is opaque and inconsistent on critical details.”

“We can only hope the full Committee of Inquiry report will be made public, and that the police and coroner will shed light on what actually happened and why.”

She added:

“Without transparency and accountability, parents of sons will – with reason – be anxious about what takes place in national service camps.”

Minister of Defence, Ng Eng Hen, told Parliament in June that there were 4 concurrent investigations going on into the NSF’s death.

“There will certainly be no interference from Mindef and SAF,” he said. “And we will live with whatever they conclude with.”

The investigations are being conducted by the police, the coroner, a Committee of Inquiry and an external panel’s inquiry into the SAF’s heat injury management.

Dr Ng said if no criminal charges were brought against those responsible for CFC Lee’s death, Mindef would prosecute them in a military court.

Dr Ng’s full statement here.