Pentagon reverses; bomb squad won’t have to repay huge debts

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has determined members of its civilian bomb squad won’t be required to reimburse the government up to $173,000 that each member was erroneously paid, according to a defense official.

The decision, reported by the Washington Post, finally soothed fears of bomb squad members who for than a year believed they faced financial ruin.

On Wednesday of this week, the Washington Post had reported that in January 2015, nine members of the Pentagon’s bomb squad had been alerted that they had been overpaid for years, and the government wanted the money back.

In January 2015, bomb squad technicians were told their annual pay would be cut by 25 percent, and they would be required to repay debts of up to $173,000.

The Washington Headquarters Services, which provides administrative oversight to several Pentagon agencies, had determined the bomb squad members were not eligible to receive the hazardous duty pay they had received since the unit was established in 2008.

Despite assurances that bomb squad workers would not have to repay a portion of their salaries, their cases were sent to collection by the Pentagon’s accounting agency.

In the months after the WHS decision, a senior member of the bomb squad committed suicide at his home near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Friends of Axel Fernandez blame his suicide at least in part on the Pentagon requirement that he return more than $136,000 of his salary payments.

As he appealed the initial request that he repay much of the money he had been paid, Fernandez had written he would never have quit his job with the U.S. Capitol Police if the bomb squad offer letter hadn’t specified he would receive hazardous duty pay.

Late Wednesday, after the Post report, the Pentagon finally determined it was waiving the debts of the bomb squad members.

The erroneous hazardous pay was “incorrectly authorized through no fault of the employees involved,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Badger, a Pentagon spokesman.

Badger said the payment of hazardous pay was “an administrative error made in good faith, but with severe financial consequences to the employees.”

Badger told the Post the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals had waived the debts after completing the normal waiver of debt process.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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