Members of the Pentagon's bomb squad were stunned nearly 18 months ago to learn that the hazardous duty pay they had been getting since joining the team was "a mistake."
Worse still, says the team's leader, Defense Department Explosives Investigator Richard Coleman, the government wants the money back -- a decision that will cost some members more than $100,000 and, Coleman believes, cost one team member his life.
Last month, Lead Explosives Investigator Axel Fernandez, wracked with guilt over encouraging several friends and former colleagues from the U.S. Capitol Police to join the Pentagon's explosive ordnance disposal squad -- a fateful move that has since put their homes and retirement at risk -- shot himself with his service revolver.
Coleman, who hired Fernandez in 2008 away from the Capitol Police squad, believes Fernandez paid the ultimate price for a Pentagon mistake for which it is making the team responsible.
"They have blood on their hands," said Coleman, who learned on Monday that the Defense Finance Accounting Service is holding Fernandez's death benefits pending a decision on his request for a waiver from the debt that Coleman said is at least $135,000.
Coleman said the service intends to cut a check to Fernandez's family for $4,023.39, with the remainder of the money held back to cover the debt.
Fernandez's wife, Sandy, declined to speak with Military.com for this story. Fernandez also left behind two daughters.
One EOD investigator who, like Fernandez, joined the Pentagon Force Protection Agency team from the Capitol Police, found the colleague's death tragic.
"I wish he had talked to me about this," said the investigator, who spoke to Military.com on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. "I make my own decisions. The fact that he felt guilty about this -- his wife told me about it at the memorial service -- I was devastated. Absolutely devastated. That's something I'm going to think about every day for the rest of my life."
Coleman said the hazardous duty pay, which is 25 percent of a day's pay for each day you work, was included in the federal job postings and detailed in each member's "firm offer" letter.
Coleman said he heard a rumor that someone from another Pentagon Force Protection Agency section resented the EOD team getting the pay and spurred an official inquiry. What he knows for certain is that in January 2015 -- with just two days' notice -- the team's hazardous duty pay was stopped, with Washington Headquarters Services, or WHS, the agency that handles financial management for Pentagon departments, saying it had been paid in error.
"Then a few days later, [they said] 'And we want the money back,' " he said.
Coleman said he had to demand that the change be put in writing to team members. That letter finally was given to them in April, he said.
Anthony DeCristofaro, a spokesman for Washington Headquarters Services, confirmed to Military.com that the review was prompted by a complaint to the Office of the Inspector General'shotline "alleging that certain employees were receiving premium pay in violation of Office of Personnel Management restrictions."
He said the headquarters services reviewed the EOD positions and determined that they were not eligible to receive hazardous duty pay.
"There had previously been an administrative error, and the pay was incorrectly authorized," DeCristofaro said in an email to Military.com. "This was through no fault of the employees involved, and they could not have known it was paid in error."
The decision resulted in the loss of hazardous duty pay for all employees working in the Pentagon's Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Explosive Directorate, he said, though Coleman said hazardous duty pay had never been part of the job offer to members of those other teams.
It also resulted in collection notices from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service for the past overpayments, which the EOD members are appealing. DeCristofaro said WHS has submitted a letter supporting the appeals and also is assisting them in their requests to DFAS seeking forgiveness of the debt. Those appeals are still pending, he said.
A Fatal Mistake?
DFAS began issuing a series of repayment demand letters to the EOD team members last September.
With each letter, the total amount to be paid back would increase as DFAS reviewed a different or expanded pay period. The department is now seeking $177,000 in back hazardous duty pay from Coleman. The other EOD team member interviewed by Military.com may be forced to pay back more than $100,000.
The two say that, if pushed to pay back the money, everyone on the team stands to see their credit ruined, since the debt will be reflected in individual credit reports. And that kind of debt also could mean the loss of security clearances needed for the kind of work they do, Coleman said.
Even if the government takes the money back in installments, it will take years to pay off and it would be coming off of paychecks already reduced because they no longer receive hazardous duty pay.
Had officials decided that EOD members would no longer get the pay going forward, that would have been one thing, says Coleman. If paying it was a mistake, it was not the members' mistake, and taking back pay they were given as part of coming to the Pentagon Force Protection Agency bomb team is wrong and unfair, according to Coleman.
And then there is Fernandez, whose death the investigators who spoke to Military.com consider tied to the change.
"I will tell you," one of Fernandez's former colleagues from Capitol Police said, "my feeling is that if we all stayed at Capitol Police, I'd be talking to Axel today."
A Shrinking Team
There are now five members on a Pentagon Force Protection Agency bomb squad that is authorized nine.
Even before Fernandez's death last month, three members had left since WHS rescinded the hazardous duty pay. One team member retired and two went to other jobs -- one of them to Afghanistan as a contractor.
Coleman said the members have asked DFAS for a waiver from the debt. They have also asked the White House Office of Personnel Management for a ruling that the hazardous duty payments were legal and just.
Coleman said he has no idea when either agency will act on the requests.
He said the letters they have received state the money must be paid back within 30 days, something highly unlikely given the totals. So far, DFAS has not moved to recover the money. But if that happens, unless the money is not paid in 30 days, "they will take it out of your pay at 8 percent interest," Coleman said.
"I've been told that WHS has requested that DFAS not take the money out of my pay -- sort of like they're doing this out of the goodness of their hearts," Coleman scoffed. "I think, personally, that they know they're wrong and they should never have done this. This is what they fear right now -- this hitting the fan, hard."
Over the course of several years and job classification changes, officials never flagged hazardous duty pay as an issue, the two said. It was spelled out to each job applicant and appeared on every team member's "firm offer" letter.
If team members were erroneously paid hazardous duty pay, they ask, why over the course of eight years, multiple job postings, interviews and employment offers, did no one catch it?
In fact, though hazardous duty pay was dropped in January 2015,
it was still listed as an incentive pay for a Pentagon Force Protection Agency explosives investigator in a USAJOBS.gov employment announcement published three months later.
"Unless you know something that I do not know, the announcement has to be recalled, it is not correct," Coleman informed the agency in an email on April 2, 2015. Theposting was then amended, removing eligibility for hazardous duty pay.
Coleman, in a statement drafted making the case for the hazardous duty pay team members had received, said individuals applying for a job should not be expected to investigate the legality of an incentive pay included in an offer, especially given that there are more than 60 special or incentive pays authorized for service members or federal employees.
And when team members did leave other jobs for the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, hazardous duty pay was a significant incentive.
"We left our law enforcement retirement for this place," one of those who worked with Fernandez at the Capitol Police said. "And, basically, if we had not received hazardous duty pay, I would not have come here. And so what they did, so callously and so flippantly, [is] they messed with our retirement."