Pentagon to Forgive Bomb Squad Team's Debt After Pay Error

A man wears an explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, suit during a military training exercise on May 5, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Tanenbaum/U.S. Air Force)
A man wears an explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, suit during a military training exercise on May 5, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Tanenbaum/U.S. Air Force)

The Pentagon now says it will waive hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt imposed on its bomb squad team after erroneously paying the members hazardous duty pay for several years.

The move came after separate news articles detailing the case by Military.com and The Washington Post.

Members of the team told Military.com in May that the debt -- well over $100,000 for some -- played a part in one member's suicide in April. They said Lead Explosives Investigator Axel Fernandez of Fredericksburg killed himself after being overcome with guilt for having encouraged others to join the team, only to see them all facing financial ruin after being told they would have to pay all the money back.

The Washington Post ran its own story about the case on Tuesday and, as the paper first reported on Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Eric Badger said the Defense Department will waive the debt following a decision by the Defense Office of Hearings & Appeals, or DOHA.

Members of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency's bomb squad, officially the Hazardous Devices Division, sought the waiver in hope of getting out from under the debt that would have taken them years to pay back and possibly ruined their credit ratings and even their careers.

In an email to Military.com, Badger said the hazardous duty pay authorization was an administrative error made in good faith but had "severe financial consequences for the employees.

"The pay was incorrectly authorized through no fault of the employees involved," he added. "They could not have known it was paid in error, and we take this matter very seriously."

The team's hazardous duty pay, 25 percent of a day's pay for each day of work, was included in the federal job postings and detailed in each member's "firm offer" letter. EOD team members who spoke to Military.com said the pay was a key incentive to leave other jobs.

At the time he took his life, Fernandez was facing a debt of about $135,000, DoD Explosives Investigator Richard Coleman, the team's leader, told Military.com. Coleman left the FBI to form the Pentagon EOD team in 2008 and Fernandez was his first hire, he said.

Coleman's debt was determined to be $177,000.

The error came to light after a review by Washington Headquarters Services, which oversees administration of Pentagon agencies. The review followed a Defense Department Inspector General investigation spurred by an anonymous complaint over the hazardous duty pay.

The headquarters services determined that hazardous duty pay could be granted only if the hazardous duty had not been taken into consideration when the job classification is being structured, Badger said. When authorized, it's paid when an employee performs the hazardous duty and only for the duration of the hazard.

"Misapplication of this provision resulted in the squad members receiving the hazard pay differential during times of annual leave, training, and overtime," Badger said.

The headquarters services told the team members it would support their requests for waivers and made that known to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, as well. DFAS, the agency responsible for collecting the money, had begun sending out notices for repayment more than a year ago.

Members were able to hold off making repayments or seeing their pay dunned over the error while they appealed.

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

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