Editor’s Note: This article was published as part of a content-sharing agreement between Army Times and The Fayetteville Observer.
The mother of a paratrooper whose decomposing body was found in his barracks room three years ago was on Capitol Hill last week hoping legislators would hear her concerns about the deaths of service members on American soil.
Pvt. 2nd Class Caleb Smither, 19, was found dead in his room Jan. 22, 2020, seven weeks after being assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and five days after he was given an order to rest after striking his head in the motor pool earlier in the month. No one checked on him in those five days. By the time they did, it was too late.
Smither’s mother, Heather Baker, is not satisfied with the Army’s handling of her son’s death case and is concerned that her medical malpractice claim will be denied while the same providers who misdiagnosed her son could still be treating other service members and military families.
“At the end of the day, Caleb is in the ground, but what about everybody else,” Baker said during a phone interview from her home. “I can not sit here in Lubbock, Texas, and see all these things happening to our men and women in uniform and veterans and not say anything.”
Baker went to Washington D.C. last week, after requesting meetings with dozens of senators and state representatives.
Baker said she hopes that members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will back her in urging the Army to review some of its policies about checking on soldiers and holding medical care providers accountable. Baker believes her son’s chain of command neglected to check on him after his injury, contributing to his death. She also faults doctors at Womack Army Medical Center for failing to properly diagnose him.
She is asking that Congress consider requiring independent reviews of any military noncombat deaths; that military families be able to sue for medical malpractice; and that military medical providers are audited when patients or their family has concerns about their care.
She wants to have a meeting with Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth about her son’s death case, too.
Smither, affectionately known as Smitty, was a paratrooper with E Company, 37th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
According to the autopsy results, the cause of his death was bacterial meningitis — a diagnosis doctors missed when he went to the hospital after striking his head. Following his death, a doctor said some symptoms of meningitis mimic those of a head injury.
Smither died alone in his room during a four-day holiday weekend, despite other paratroopers witnessing signs he was unwell including complaining of light sensitivity.
In her son’s case, Baker said, it took months before anyone could tell her what happened.
After an Army Criminal Investigation report was completed in Spring 2021, Baker said officials told her the death case was closed.
“Imagine a year and half without any idea of what’s going on, then all of a sudden you get a call from your attorney telling you that the Army has denied your medical malpractice claim,” she said.
According to a March 15 letter to Baker’s attorney, Daniel Maharaj, from the Army Claims Service, Smither was treated Jan. 14, 2020, by a physician’s assistant in Womack Army Medical Center’s emergency room.
The letter states that in the initial determination of the medical malpractice case, a board-certified emergency room physician found Smither’s care was “within the standards of care.”
An Army CID report, states Smither hit his head in early January 2020 while working in the motor pool on a military vehicle. Smither’s captain and first sergeant wrote in their statements that he was originally turned away from the hospital before soldiers in his unit took him to the emergency room.
A sergeant told investigators after a CT scan, doctors said everything looked fine, but Smither was told to stay in his room for the next 24 hours.
According to the Army Claims Service letter, Smither had light sensitivity from the recent head trauma, but medical officials determined the light sensitivity and headaches “can be symptoms of acute bacterial meningitis, but that in the full context of his Jan. 14 visit, a meningitis diagnosis would be very low.”
According to the letter, Smither had an “essentially normal neurological exam,” with no signs of a skull fracture or fluid leaking and that a CT scan would have been considered had Smither lost consciousness.
According to the CID report, a doctor who diagnosed the meningitis after Smither’s death said that the strain of bacteria the young soldier had, typically enters the brain via head trauma. The doctor said that Smither’s headache and vomiting were likely symptoms of meningitis, not head trauma, as Smither was told.
According to the CID report, the emergency room originally labeled Smither’s condition as post-concussion syndrome.
The letter states the emergency room physician who saw Smither on Jan. 15 was a civilian contractor. That was the first time Smither’s mother had heard her son was treated by a contractor.
“Caleb died in 2020,” Baker’s attorney, Maharaj, said. “It almost appears as if the Army notified us after about the contractor after the fact despite having ample opportunity to tell us.”
In a phone interview Monday, Maharaj said that while the letter states that the Army’s initial review of the medical malpractice case only looked into Smither’s care on the day he was turned away. It did not review his care when he returned and received the head trauma diagnosis from a contract doctor.
Maharaj said contractors are not covered under the Department of Defense’s current regulations governing the review of healthcare claims, meaning the military is not responsible for the contractor’s care.
“It almost looks as if they found a way to sidestep any responsibility,” Maharaj said.
Maharaj said if Baker wanted to seek recourse under North Carolina law against the contractor, the state’s three-year statute of limitation to file a claim has passed.
Baker said that regardless of whether it was a DOD or civilian doctor who provided the care for her son, she is concerned that individuals who saw her son could still be misdiagnosing servicemembers and their families.
A Womack Army Medical Center spokesperson could not be reached for comment by deadline. Hospital officials previously declined to comment on Smither’s case citing patient confidentiality.
In May, Baker started a petition that seeks to have the Army reopen her son’s death case with congressional oversight.
She said it is easy to get caught up in the details about his death.
“I could spend my days in bed crying, or I can put on my boots and hit the ground running and give a care, which was one of Caleb’s mottos,” she said.
She said she’s been in touch with her local members of Congress, Rep. Jodey Arrington and Sen. Ted Cruz, both Texas Republicans.
“At the end of the day, if people don’t understand what’s going on, they can’t help,” Baker said. “I have to make sure that people see the research and evidence and see the problem and see that it’s not just Caleb affected by this.”
Citing a Government Office of Accountability report, Baker said statistics show that 75% of service members who die, die in noncombat-related events, and 93% of those deaths are on American soil.
Another GOA report, Baker said, found that of 100 providers in the four Defense Health Agency facilities reviewed, about one-sixth of the providers did not have their medical licenses verified.
She intends to dispute the Army’s initial determination in Smither’s case and at the same time wants Congress to know that the Department of Defense is “finding loopholes,” to deny claims.
“If we can’t take care of our service members on their own territory, then what are we doing,” Baker asked. “They’re swearing to defend our nation, and they’re not even able to have the same rights as everybody else.”
Baker said she’s spoken to other families whose service members have died from noncombat-related deaths and understands why others don’t come forward.
“This is hell,” she said. “This is like you’re a zombie waking the Earth trying to fight a cause that nobody even knows about. So when we have our nation and our community informed about what’s going on, that just makes the walk less heavy.”
Checking on fellow soldiers
Baker said she also wants to see a change in policy based on the missteps she’s noticed in the CID report about her son’s case.
Aside from the medical care, the CID report details that soldiers in Smither’s unit failed to check on him during a four-day Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend after noticing something was wrong.
Smither’s acting squad leader told investigators he lied during an initial report about the last time he checked on Smither. A corporal claimed he checked on Smither after noticing Smither’s behavior at formation, but was unable to provide a call log showing the contact.
Baker said one of the things she noticed in her son’s death report is that “everyone seemed to be pointing fingers,” at everyone else.
The informal investigation concluded that despite no medical directive to keep an eye on Smither, two people in his chain of command who should have checked on him “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 in the CID report.
Baker said, commanders told her that the acting squad leader who failed to check on her son was punished for dereliction of duty and making a false official statement.
The CID report recommended the unit examine procedures or set new ones for health and welfare checks after a soldier suffers a head injury.
Baker said she would like to see the military implement “the Smitty check,” which would require face-to-face interaction instead of a call or text message.
“I think on a human level, we need to get together and have that camaraderie,” she said “I think the power of the internet and texting has made people lazy.”
Grief and carrying on Smither’s memory
Baker said she’s at a stage of grief where she’s acknowledging that her son can’t be brought back.
“There’s got to be a change a shift where I can let go and breathe properly, but I can’t do that right now,” she said. “There’s not been any closure, and it seems like I keep getting pushback, but I think that’s telling me there’s something more and to push a little harder.”
Her son, Baker said, had a tattoo with the Latin creed, “amat victoria curam,” which means victory loves preparation.
Baker said her son had goals to be the best mechanic and eventually go to Ranger and Sapper schools.
Even in his final days after hitting his head and likely being in pain, Smither was a dedicated soldier who continued to show up for formations, she said.
“He was proud to be airborne,” Baker said. “He showed me pictures of his maroon beret, and he never even got a professional photo with it. It makes me sad to think about the little things. What a sad waste of a beautiful life what was willing to sacrifice humbly for everyone.”
Since his death, Baker said, she’s always wanted to honor and represent her son’s memory well, he was her best friend, her protector, her only son.
“I feel so blessed that I am his mom,” she said.
Baker said she is comforted by hearing stories from soldiers who went through basic and airborne training with her son.
During his funeral, she said, a fellow soldier told her about the time in basic training when another team stole their guidon flag. He said Smither snuck out in the middle of the night to get their flag back along with the opposing team’s flag
“He told me he saw Caleb running through the trees with both flags holding them up high, and I see him in my mind that way,” Baker said. “I know he’s wanting me to come out on the other side the same way. I don’t believe we’re there quite yet.
Another soldier, who Smither trained with at Fort Benning, Georgia, became one of his leaders at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
The soldier told Baker that she owed her airborne wings to Smither because, during a last run at Fort Benning, she started to lag behind the formation.
“She said Caleb ran back and pulled her back into the formation and used his knuckles so that every time she lost momentum, she’d feel that push and nudge,” Baker said.
“She told me she wanted me to know what kind of young man he was and that he was a true brother. I think back about that story, and I feel that. I can also feel that nudge.”