SINGAPORE: More details have come to light about the death of 3rd Sergeant (3SG) Gavin Chan last September during training in Australia. The details were revealed by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in his ministerial statement on Thursday (May 17) regarding National Service (NS) training deaths.
Speaking in Parliament, Dr Ng said all investigative processes, including those by the Queensland authorities, given the incident occurred in Australia’s Shoalwater Bay, have been completed and the coroner’s report provided to the dead NSF’s parents.
3SG Chan had served one year and eight months of his NS liabilities when the incident happened, in which he had suffered multiple injuries sustained as a result of motor vehicle trauma.
The parents have also given permission for the report to be shared in Parliament, except for the post-mortem findings which were redacted, the minister said.
“VERY UNFORTUNATE” INCIDENT
According to the findings, the Queensland police investigations found that there were no defects with the Bionix armoured infantry vehicle.
Based on scene evidence and witness information they gathered, the Bionix’s path forward was halted due to an obstruction and 3SG Chan, who was the vehicle commander, gave orders for the driver to reverse slowly down the hill. At that point, he was stationed in the turret with his upper body “clear of the vehicle structure” giving instructions to the driver on where to reverse.
“All confirmed that the driver was continuing to reverse slowly, and in accordance with the commander’s instructions, when the vehicle traversed over a flat granite rock for about four metres before the vehicle became stuck on a large boulder, holding upon the vehicle undercarriage,” the coroner’s finding said.
It added that the commander instructed the driver to turn the steering wheel to try and gain traction when “suddenly the vehicle dropped down over the rock rolling sideways before coming to rest further down the slope”.
3SG Chan was “ejected from the vehicle and suffered significant injuries”, after which life support was rendered before he was airlifted to the hospital where he was later pronounced dead, the findings showed.
“The police considered that it was likely that the incident occurred because of the commander’s decision to reverse on a slightly different path down the hill and that his choice to be positioned with part of his body outside the vehicle exposed him to greater risk of injury,” the coroner’s findings said.
The Queensland police also considered the incident to be a “very unfortunate” one while deployed in difficult terrain in “black out” conditions.
The report was signed off on Mar 6 this year, according to documents seen by Channel NewsAsia.
Dr Ng said in his statement that the independent Committee of Inquiry (COI), which was convened by the Armed Forces Council, corroborated the police findings. The statement was in response to questions posed by MPs Henry Kwek and Vikram Nair, Non-constituency MP Dennis Tan and Nominated MP Ganesh Rajaram on recent NS deaths within the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
He said the committee found that the mishap occurred during night training for Bionix units, which was conducted regularly to train armour units to fight at night and under conditions of poor visibility.
3SG Chan and his platoon mates were “sufficiently trained and qualified to participate in the exercise, and had no mental and physical conditions that could have affected their fitness to participate”, Dr Ng added.
The medical and safety coverage provided were also found by the committee to be “timely, adequate and proper”, the minister said.
SAFETY LAPSES IDENTIFIED
There were some safety lapses identified by the COI though, Dr Ng pointed out.
For one, the night vision device (NVD) on 3SG Chan’s vehicle was not working. 3SG Chan decided to continue driving without headlights, even though night driving should be done with the driver's hatch open and headlights switched on. According to the driver, 3SG Chan said “it would give away their position to the enemy”, the minister added.
In the darkness, the vehicle entered an area with steep inclines and boulders and, after dismounting, 3SG Chan found that a boulder was blocking the vehicle. He got on the Bionix and, sitting on the top edge of the vehicle commander hatch, told the driver to reverse the vehicle with the hatch open and headlights switched on. But the vehicle overturned on the steep embankment as they did so, he said.
The three other soldiers within the Bionix did not suffer any injuries from the mishap, he said.
The COI did not find any “negligence, foul play or misconduct”, the Defence Minister said, but it did recommend the SAF review its training safety regulations on the position of the vehicle commander for armoured fighting vehicles.
So, if the commander is unable to execute the overturning drill, the vehicle must stop and be stationary.
It also recommended strong checks with regard to the NVDs and to enforce the wearing of seatbelts for passengers when the vehicle is moving.
Dr Ng said SAF has since implemented additional training for vehicle commanders over uneven terrain, with training rules limiting exposure of their bodies to waist level when executing certain operational tasks.
It also now has a drill that includes checking if the NVD, and other night fighting equipment, works when transiting to night exercise, as well as taking up the seatbelt recommendation, with the minister saying disciplinary actions will be taken against those found in breach of safety.
He said 3SG Chan’s death was classified as training related and compensation has been offered to the family. His parents had also accepted the honours of a military funeral.
Around a hundred family members, friends and NS colleagues had paid their final respects at 3SG Chan’s wake in Pasir Ris last September.
“The armour formation paid their last respects to a dedicated commander who they are proud to call one of their own,” Dr Ng said.
"Sergeant Gavin Chan is a good soldier."