Sick paratrooper who died of infection was failed by leadership, investigation says

Sick paratrooper who died of infection was failed by leadership, investigation says


This story was first published in the Fayetteville Observer.

FORT BRAGG — Pvt. 2nd Class Caleb Grant Smither looked up to paratroopers. That’s why he became one, his mother, Heather Baker, said.

But Baker thinks some of the paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division that her son served with let him down.

Smither, affectionately known as Smitty, was a paratrooper with the E Company, 37th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

After spending just seven weeks and four days at Fort Bragg, the soldier from Texas was found dead in his barracks room Jan. 21, 2020.

“He was just a 19-year-old kid with lots of vigor and ready to go and (who) loved his country,” Baker said last month during a Zoom call. “He knew exactly what he was getting into, and I did, too, but I never expected him to die on U.S. soil.”

According to an Army Criminal Investigation Division report provided to The Fayetteville Observer by Baker and her attorney, Smither died of bacterial meningitis.

The report, which includes multiple statements from soldiers in Smither’s company — with their names redacted — states Smither hit his head in early January 2020 while working in the motor pool on a military vehicle.

It’s the actions of the soldiers in her son’s unit before his death and Womack Army Medical Center’s failure to properly diagnose his injury that Baker has questions about.

There are conflicting statements on the date Smither went to the hospital.

There is the soldier in his chain of command who later told investigators he lied about checking on him.

There is the roommate who sprayed air freshener to rid the shared kitchen of a bad smell that was later attributed to Smither’s decomposing body.

And there are mentions of a concussion Smither received days before his death and a seemingly unrelated meningitis diagnosis that came months after his death.

“Everything that I found out — it just gives me more questions,” Baker said.

Who was Caleb Smither?

Smither grew up in the small Texas town of Wolfforth on the outskirts of Lubbock.

“He was like the perfect all-American kid,” Baker said.

Her son liked hiking, camping, running and wrestling.

She described him as popular in school because he was silly, a good kid, and built relationships with all social classes.

Smither always wanted to join the military, initially considering the Marines or becoming a Navy Seal, before deciding he wanted to join the 82nd Airborne Division, his mother said.

Though he wanted to enlist by the time he was 17, his mother encouraged him to finish his senior year.

Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division walk to their C-17 aircraft for their jump into Sicily drop zone on April 13, 2021, at Fort Bragg, N.C. (Spc Emely Opio/Army)
Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division walk to their C-17 aircraft for their jump into Sicily drop zone on April 13, 2021, at Fort Bragg, N.C. (Spc Emely Opio/Army)

She said she still supported his adventurous spirit.

“I’m so proud of him that he wanted to go airborne,” Baker said.

Smither enlisted in the Army in May 2019 and was stationed at Fort Bragg by December that year.

Baker said that in one of her last conversations with her son, he showed her his maroon beret, the mark of distinction reserved solely for the airborne soldier.

“He was so proud of it,” she said.

A mother’s intuition

Baker said that on the day her son’s body was found lying on his back on the floor of his barracks bedroom, she was unknowingly wearing his sweatshirt emblazoned with an American flag that he left behind.

She fell asleep that night and was awakened at about 6:30 a.m. by persistent banging on her door.

On the other side were two soldiers in uniform.

“I knew,” Baker said. “As a parent, you just know right then what it’s about, and you can’t make sense of it in your mind or your heart.”

The soldiers confirmed what she suspected. Caleb was gone.

She told them she didn’t understand — that she’d just dropped her son off at the airport on Thanksgiving Day.

She kept asking what happened.

“There was just a lot of questions that I had and that there were no answers to,” Baker said.

Headaches and hospital visits

According to the Army CID report, soldiers in Smither’s company indicated the last time anyone saw him was Jan. 16, 2020, five days before his body was found.

His mother questions that date. A command briefing months later states that on Jan. 15, he was instructed to stay in his room, and she believes that was the last time anyone on Fort Bragg saw him.

A private, who attended Army training school with Smither, said the two worked on a vehicle together sometime between Jan. 6 and Jan. 10, when Smither stood up and accidentally hit his head on a radiator, according to the CID report.

Another reference in a separate investigation states the head injury was Jan. 9, 2020.

The private told investigators she and Smither took a short break after he hit his head, and afterward, he seemed fine and went back to work.

A couple of days later, she said, he started to complain about a bad headache, but later came over to eat and seemed fine.

She gave investigators a voicemail she received from Smither on Jan. 14, in which he was crying because his head hurt.

Baker said the fact that her son was crying was a red flag to her because he was not the type to cry.

The private told investigators that after she received the voicemail, she went to Smither’s room to place a cold compress on his head before leaving for work.

She said she also texted a sergeant saying that she thought Smither should go to the emergency room.

When she left, she told her friend to text her if he needed anything.

“He never texted me, so I just assumed he was fine,” she said.

Later, when she saw him writing in a group chat, she thought he was getting better.

According to a statement from a specialist in Smither’s unit, a sergeant asked him to pick Smither up from sick call on Jan. 14 and take him to Womack Army Medical Center to have his “head looked at.”

The specialist said when he met up with Smither, the young soldier was wearing goggles and complained of his eyes bothering him and being unable to sleep.

After the ER visit, the specialist said, Smither was pale and shaking but did not appear to be in pain, though he was still wearing the goggles.

The specialist left after walking Smither back to the barracks and telling him to call if he needed anything.

When Smither arrived at formation the next day, again wearing goggles and complaining his head hurt and his eyes were sensitive to light, a sergeant first class took him back to the emergency room.

While in the emergency room waiting area, Smither threw up after drinking water, he said.

The senior leader left when Smither’s team leader, a sergeant, arrived.

The sergeant also said he witnessed Smither vomit at the hospital.

The sergeant said after a CT scan, doctors said everything looked fine, but put Smither on quarters for 24 hours, excusing him from formations and work and ordering him to stay in his room.

The sergeant said he didn’t see Smither again because he left Fort Bragg to attend a leadership course. But before the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend began and he left, the sergeant asked Smither’s acting squad leader, a specialist, to check on him.

Smither would be found dead six days later on a Tuesday afternoon.

Who’s checking on Smither?

In his statement to CID, Smither’s company commander, a captain, named two soldiers, the names redacted in the report, who he said checked on Smither periodically during the four-day holiday weekend.

The specialist who was asked to keep an eye on Smither told investigators that he was out of town for two days during the long weekend and claimed to have checked on Smither on Sunday, Jan. 19.

However, in another interview the following day, the specialist admitted he’d lied about checking on Smither.

“I felt very guilty about not checking up on him and was scared,” the specialist said in his statement to CID. The last date the specialist checked on Smither was Jan. 16, he said.

When he didn’t see Smither on Jan. 20, 2020, and noticed he wasn’t at formation the following day, Jan. 21, he finally checked on him. But Smither was dead.

A corporal said he called to check on Smither on the Friday of the long weekend after noticing a change in his behavior at formation.

Spc. Enrique Roman-Martinez pictured with his mother, niece and nephew. (Courtesy photo/Martinez family)

The corporal said Smither sounded groggy, like he’d just woken up, and in pain.

When he was unable to provide a call log showing the contact, the corporal said he may have used a different phone and couldn’t remember because he drank after he spoke to Smither.

When investigators asked if anyone checked on Smither, he said it was his understanding that Smither’s squad leader — the specialist — was checking on him.

The investigator noted in the report that the corporal was “getting irritated when he was asked questions about when he last saw PV2 Smither.”

“I also work on a different team, so it’s better if you asked his team,” the corporal said, according to the CID report.

The corporal also told investigators he overheard Smither’s roommate complain their barracks “smelled like (expletive),” and as a result, the corporal said, he told the team leader he needed to check on Smither.

Smither’s roommate told investigators he and Smither only saw each other in passing and didn’t hang out. According to the CID report, their quarters had a shared kitchen and bathroom area but separate bedrooms.

The roommate said he last saw Smither either Jan. 15, 2020 or Jan. 16, 2020, and that Smither acted sick since hitting his head, seemed dazed and could not look at light and would stay in the bathroom for an hour at a time.

On Jan. 16, the roommate said, he cleaned the common area of the barracks room and placed Smither’s clothes in front of his door.

The following day, he said, he put a note on Smither’s door asking him to clean the microwave because of an upcoming inspection.

When the note and clothes remained throughout the weekend, the roommate said he thought it meant Smither was out of town.

The roommate said he spent the long weekend away and returned to his room Jan. 19. He said he thought he heard “thumping, moving around or footsteps” from Smither’s room.

The roommate said that it was on Jan. 20 when he first noticed a foul smell and used Febreze, an air freshener, in the common area. He said that the following day when he left early for his job at the dining facility, the odor had seemed to intensify.

It wasn’t until the following day, Jan. 21, that the specialist who failed to check on Smither finally entered his room with a passkey. By then it was too late.

“It comes down to this was a long weekend, and they didn’t care to check on Caleb,” Baker’s attorney, Daniel Maharaj said.

AR 15-6 investigation report

Maharaj said there are statements from at least three soldiers in the CID report who said Smither showed up to formation Jan. 14, 2020, and was turned away from the emergency room.

But, Maharaj said, a medical representative at a briefing given to Smither’s mother said he did not believe Smither was turned away.

The report shows that when the first sergeant was asked about Smither’s attempt to get care at Womack Army Medical Center, the senior leader said Smither’s platoon sergeant told him Smither was told by the ER to see his primary care physician.

Hospital discharge paperwork found in his room confirms Smither went to the ER Jan. 14 and Jan. 15, 2020.

Those records were included in an informal investigation conducted by military officers under Army Regulation 15-6.

According to the CID report, a patient tag from Womack Army Medical Center dated Jan. 15, 2020, was found on Smither’s body.

The report notes that Smither’s last communication with anyone was when he spoke with a friend on Snapchat about 2 p.m. Jan. 17, 2020.

Smither told the friend about having a concussion and how he hated it.

Maharaj said he and Baker have not seen a timestamp of that Snapchat and that the friend indicated to Baker the Jan. 17 date is incorrect.

His mother said she suspects the last time anyone on Fort Bragg communicated with her son was Jan. 15, after the last doctor’s appointment. The only soldiers who said they had contact with him at any time after that, she noted, are the specialist who initially lied about checking on him and the corporal who said he couldn’t find a call log of his last chat with Smither and who blamed drinking for his faulty memory.

She said the state of her son’s body makes it unclear to her when he was last seen alive.

The informal investigation concluded that despite no medical directive to keep an eye on Smither, two people specifically — the specialist tasked with checking on him and the corporal also in his chain of command — “seemed apathetically disengaged in their responsibility for the welfare of PV2 Smither.”

“The leadership failed for at least four days to check on the health and welfare of a junior paratrooper who injured his head, vomited, went to the emergency room twice, had a concussion, and seemingly was no better as the week progressed,” the investigating officer wrote.

The report recommended the unit consider administrative action against the two soldiers and examine procedures or set new ones for health and welfare checks after a soldier suffers a head injury.

The investigating officer concluded the departure of Smither’s sergeant to the leadership course created a gap that resulted in no direct supervisor verifying whether measures were followed to check on Smither.

The officer noted that while the sergeant asked the specialist to check on Smither during the four-day weekend, it was not a formal order.

The informal investigation also concluded that “neither misconduct nor negligence, on the part of PV2 Smither contributed to his death.”

During a briefing with Baker and her attorney, commanders said the specialist was given non-judicial punishment for dereliction of duty and making a false official statement.

The family is told the investigation is complete.

Baker’s attorney questions why there hasn’t been a court-martial to address what he described as Smither’s team leader impeding an investigation.

“What is the criminality that they’re looking at? Because to me, that is criminal to lie to an investigator under oath,” Maharaj said.

“It’s a disservice to everyone involved … It’s jaw-dropping, and Caleb should be here today.”

Baker said that she thinks that along with the specialist who lied, others in the unit bear responsibility.

She wants to know why no one knocked on her son’s door or thought to bring him food during the weekend.

She thinks any soldier who knew her son was injured should have cared enough to check on him instead of asking others to do it like the corporal.

“He saw warning signs that he didn’t do anything about,” Baker said.

Baker also said she thinks military deaths should be investigated by those without a conflict of interest.

Lt. Col Michael Burns, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division, said any loss of a soldier is a tragedy.

“We continue to mourn the unfortunate loss of PV2 Caleb Smither, and we remain diligent in our practices to care for, monitor and supervise injured paratroopers throughout the recovery process,” Burns said last month.

Meningitis diagnosis

Five months after Smither’s body was found, the final autopsy results would list the cause of death as acute bacterial meningitis — not a head injury.

The CT scan found no brain bleed, fracture or signs of traumatic brain injury, but a tissue examination revealed the finding of bacterial meningitis, the CID report said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meningitis causes a bacterial or viral infection around the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light — all of which were noted in the records of Smither’s ER visits.

There are three types of bacteria that cause meningitis, and vaccines do not protect against all the strains of each bacteria, according to the CDC.

While Smither’s immunization records showed he received a meningitis vaccine in May 2019, it was for a different strain than what he contracted, the report said.

A doctor said the strain of bacteria Smither had typically entered the brain via head trauma, but there was no indication at autopsy that a head injury was the cause, according to the report.

The doctor called the head injury a “red herring” and said Smither’s headache and vomiting were likely symptoms of meningitis.

The emergency room originally labeled his condition as post-concussion syndrome.

Baker wants to know why her son’s meningitis diagnosis wasn’t caught sooner, despite a doctor in the CID report saying his scans showed his sinuses were swollen.

“How often is someone coming to the ER with night vision goggles during the daytime?” she asked.

Womack Army Medical Center declined to comment on Smither’s care citing patient confidentiality.

“Womack does review policies, procedures and processes to ensure we deliver quality, safe healthcare,” said Shannon Lynch, a spokeswoman for Womack Army Medical Center.

Paratrooper and NCO creeds

Baker, who has started a TikTok account to create awareness about her son’s death, repeated the paratrooper creed in a video posted to the account and in the Zoom interview from her Texas home with The Fayetteville Observer.

She reflects on a line in the paratrooper’s creed that states “I shall never fail my fellow comrades by shirking any duty or training …”

The line “I’m a member of the team” in the soldier’s creed stands out to her.

In the non-commissioned officer creed, Baker keys in on “I know my soldier, and I will always place their needs above my own. I will communicate consistently with my soldiers …”

“Caleb’s whole fa,” Baker said. “It’s not like Caleb lost an eye or limb. He lost his life.”

Baker said she wants non-commissioned officers to be the types of leaders she thinks her son had the potential to become.

“I can’t bring Caleb back, but maybe we can save a few soldiers and remind leadership to lead with integrity and empathy,” she said.

“I gave up my only son for this country … I just want to grieve and be done with it, but when I know something’s not right, I can’t stop.”

Fayetteville Observer Staff writer Rachael Riley can be reached at [email protected] or 910-486-3528.





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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.