Air Force Dismisses 'Witch' Complaint from Hindu Contractor

Deborah Schoenfeld, a former Air Force contractor and Hindu who said she was called a witch by coworkers and then fired by the service when she complained, now plans to sue. (Photo courtesy Military Religious Freedom Foundation)
Deborah Schoenfeld, a former Air Force contractor and Hindu who said she was called a witch by coworkers and then fired by the service when she complained, now plans to sue. (Photo courtesy Military Religious Freedom Foundation)

A former Air Force contractor who said she was called a witch by coworkers and then fired by the service when she complained plans to sue.

Deborah Schoenfeld, who is Hindu, in September filed a harassment complaint with the Air Force Equal Employment Opportunity office at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, over harassment at the Epes Clinic. The office on Oct. 27 dismissed her complaint, saying she filed too late and also because the individuals she claimed discriminated against her "are not Air Force employees."

In an interview with Military.com Schoenfeld said with the complaint dismissed, she now plans to bring suit against the Air Force. She claims the office did not handle her complaint fairly, saying they dragged out the process with additional queries even after the deadline they cited had passed.

"I felt like, 'Why did you have me do all this work long after the [deadline], and then dismiss it?'" she said.

Schoenfeld was fired from her job at the Epes Clinic on Sept. 2, the same day she made an informal complaint to the EEO. According to her statement to the office, her supervisor said she was fired for swearing at a co-worker, a claim she denies.

Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who has been advocating for Schoenfeld since she was fired, called the EEO decision "specious, outrageous and scandalous."

"This is gross malfeasance," he said. "We will help her find a litigator for this." Schoenfeld has 90 days to file a lawsuit, he said.

The Air Force EEO Office and the 11th Wing Public Affairs Office, which handles media queries, told Military.com it would respond to questions about the complaint sometime next week.

In the decision sent to Schoenfeld, Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer O'Quinn, director of the EEO at Andrews, said the complaint was submitted on Sept. 29, 11 days beyond the 14-day filing deadline she had been told about the day she was fired.

O'Quinn also said EEO rejected the complaint because none of those who allegedly discriminated against Schoenfeld were Air Force employees.

Schoenfeld said that she sent her official complaint in by regular mail on Sept. 9, a week after her termination, and provided the office with a copy of the postage receipt of $150. She sent in a digital copy via email on Sept. 29 after the EEO said it had not received the original.

The office set Sept. 29 as the filing date.

In the decision O'Quinn makes no mention of either the informal claim Schoenfeld made on Sept. 2, the day she was fired, or of Schoenfeld's contention that she mailed in a paper copy on Sept. 9.

Schoenfeld told Military.com that the EEO dismissal fails to recognize that one of the people she complained about is, in fact, an Air Force non-commissioned officer. She said that after she was fired her supervisor, Tech. Sgt. LaShonda Jones, solicited back-dated letters of complaint about her from other clinic employees.

In making the decision it did, the EEO ducked investigating the serious claims Schoenfeld made to them, Weinstein said.

According to Schoenfeld, there was a strong and upfront Christian faith atmosphere at the clinic, where staff earlier this year were asked to pray that the Supreme Court ruled against same-sex marriage, where Christian tracts and Catholic medals were distributed regularly, where one worker routinely prayed with patients even if they declined the offer, and office celebrations – birthdays or promotions – typically began with a "distinctly Christian prayer."

She said some staff told her that the yoga and meditation she practiced as part of her Hindu faith was witchcraft.

An Army non-commissioned officer with the clinic, who also happened to be its EEO officer, tacitly condones the Christian prayers and even refused a suggestion that a non-denominational prayer be substituted.

Army Staff Sgt. Debra Douglas, the NCOIC of the clinic, referred to Schoenfeld several times as "Satan," Schoenfeld said in her EEO complaint.

Weinstein said the "astonishing magnitude of malfeasance, misfeasance and mendacity that we have seen come out of [this EEO office] is something we have never encountered before."

He said the MRFF is now demanding that the Air Force Staff at the Pentagon investigate the leadership of the Andrews EEO office.

"If the personnel at the EEO office think this is over for them, they're wrong. It's only beginning for them," he said.

--Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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