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Armoured vehicle involved in fatal army accident has history of rollovers

OTTAWA - The LAV III, which served as an eight-wheeled, armour-plated military workhorse for Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, was under fresh scrutiny Thursday after a deadly rollover in Alberta that killed a senior commanding officer.

The accident Wednesday at CFB Wainwright, 300 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, comes with the fleet in the midst of a $1-billion upgrade launched in 2011 to improve the vehicle's stability, armour and electronics.

It's also just the latest in a series of rollover incidents over the last 15 years involving the LAV III, many of them fatal.

Lt.-Col. Dan Bobbitt, commanding officer of the 2nd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, based at Garrison Petawawa, Ont., died when the light armoured vehicle he was riding in rolled over during a large training exercise involving up to 5,000 soldiers.

Four other soldiers were also injured in the crash; two were taken to hospital in Edmonton in fair condition, while the other two were treated at the base and released.

The LAV III — short for light armoured vehicle — has been involved in more than a dozen rollovers since it was introduced in 1999, including several accidents in Afghanistan that resulted in at least five deaths.

As the vehicles returned from the war, National Defence embarked on an ambitious upgrade program that is expected to add 7,700 kilograms to an already top-heavy vehicle.

It was not clear Thursday whether Bobbitt's vehicle had already been upgraded. Military officials have not released any details, saying the investigation is ongoing.

The ground at Wainwright, the army's principal training base in Western Canada, is lumpy and cut with sudden, slight ravines; the accident apparently occurred nearby one of those fissures.

Under normal conditions, up to three soldiers would be standing in separate open hatches, their upper bodies exposed, while the vehicle was in motion. But Brig.-Gen. Omar Lavoie, the army's top commander in the region, wouldn't say where Bobbitt was when the crash occurred.

"Since it's under investigation, I'm not going to speculate," said Lavoie, commander of the 4th Canadian Division, who served with Bobbitt briefly in Afghanistan in 2007.

He remembered the artillery officer as a proud husband and father, someone whose self-effacing style endeared him to his comrades.

"He was just a great, humble guy; great sense of humour; never took himself too seriously," Lavoie said.

"And for the soldiers, I think that's what they appreciated and will remember him for."

A remembrance ceremony was held near the scene Thursday before the exercise was resumed, he added.

In Petawawa, Ont., where 2 RCHA is based, Maj. Jennifer Causey — Bobbitt's second-in-command at the regiment — said the news was overwhelming for the unit and she had to break the news to troops who were not taking part in the exercise.

"The shock of the loss of their leader was palpable. It could be felt," she told a news conference at the garrison.

"It was devastating and rightfully so. Lt.-Col. Bobbitt was the leader we all aspired to be."

The refurbishment program, being carried out by General Dynamics Land Systems Inc., is expected to finish work on the army's entire fleet by 2017.

Driving heavily armed, 17,000-kilogram vehicles is a dangerous business, but the army will do nothing out of the ordinary in the wake of the accident, Lavoie said.

"The normal precautions of training safety when we're involved in using armoured vehicles will be adhered to, but no special limitations are put in place."

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