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Soldier's mom says her son's death won't be in vain if new law helps save troops' lives

A photo of Spc. Nicholas Panipinto is displayed during a memorial service inside the Warrior Chapel at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019.

MATTHEW KEELER/STARS AND STRIPES

By MARK YOUNG | The Bradenton Herald | Published: December 9, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — President Donald Trump's signature is all that is left in ensuring Army Spc. Nicholas Panipinto did not die in vain.

A series of disturbing revelations followed in the wake of Panipinto's death in November of 2019.

Those revelations showed a serious lack of available medical facilities and operable equipment, as well as a failure to maintain the Bradley Fighting Vehicle that led to Panipinto's death while training in South Korea where he was stationed.

In June of this year, Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, demanded answers.

Buchanan rallied bipartisan support in his quest for the truth and called for a congressional hearing into not only Panipinto's death, but a staggering number of U.S. servicemen training fatalities that surpassed actual combat deaths in 2017. Buchanan took a step further in adding an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that will require the Pentagon to review its medical capabilities at U.S. military bases around the globe.

On Tuesday, the U.S. House passed the final version of the defense bill, with Buchanan's legislation intact. The U.S. Senate is expected to pass it any day now and will send the bill to the White House for the president's signature.

"We're excited because some good has to come from tragedy and make sure something like this never happens again," said Kimberly Weaver, Panipinto's mother. "I didn't realize how political legislation was so much like ping pong in the way it goes back and forth, but we are hopeful this all goes through and they do increase medical facilities and emergency facilities on every base."

In the ensuing investigation, it was found Panipinto's crew should not have been in their Bradely Fighting Vehicle for a variety of reasons, including that the vehicle's maintenance records showed several mechanical issues had yet to be resolved.

The investigation also revealed that Panipinto may have survived if the base had adequate emergency facilities nearby training soldiers, that one of the medivac helicopters was inoperable and the other got temporarily lost en route to the scene. It took five hours to get Panipinto to a medical facility, where he later died from his injuries sustained in the rollover.

"We had no idea and took for granted that my son, at the largest overseas base, that they had a hospital," Weaver said. "I assumed they had these things in place, but found out after the fact that they had things like a golf course and all these other things good for their mental welfare, but first and foremost should be medical and life-saving capabilities."

Weaver said she will be relieved when the defense bill is signed into law, as long as the military does what is needed to ensure other parents don't lose their children in training accidents.

Weaver plans to stay involved with Buchanan's office in enacting other bills that will help save the lives of soldiers.

"We have to follow this through, but I have seen a lot of other things that will require legislation, to fix the layers of failures that led to this, and if legislation changes some things, it will save countless lives," she said.

Among her priorities are addressing inadequate safety features and ensuring more accurate maintenance inspection on vehicles used by the troops.

"The highest tribute that can be paid to the life of Specialist Panipinto is for the Defense Department to ensure that future military personnel who are injured during training exercises can quickly receive high-quality medical treatment that might help save their lives," Buchanan said. "I am deeply humbled that Nick's mother came to me with their tragic story and has allowed me to help. I know that these reforms will save lives and prevent future heartache felt by families like hers across the country."

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