WASHINGTON — The Drug Enforcement Administration has removed an agent from his pilot duties after he refused to be sent to Afghanistan on a 60 day-detail.
Veteran Agent Daniel Offield's reassignment from the Aviation Division came less than two weeks after McClatchy reported that some special-agent pilots said they're being forced illegally to go to a combat zone on temporary duty.
In interviews with McClatchy, more than a dozen DEA agents, including Offield, described a badly managed system in which some pilots had been sent to Afghanistan under duress or as punishment for bucking their superiors.
Offield, 47, alleges in an employment discrimination complaint that he was told if he refused to go to Afghanistan July 15 he'd be sent back to street duty. He's asked for a reprieve because he was in the process of adopting two special needs children. He offered to serve his required temporary duty in other countries.
On July 3, Offield, who lives in Stockton, Calif., was reassigned to street duty at the DEA's Oakland, Calif., office, his lawyer, Richard Margarita, said.
DEA officials say working in dangerous countries is part of a pilot's job, but many agents say service in a combat zone should be treated as voluntary because agents aren't military personnel.
DEA officials have denied discriminating against Offield and said that in such cases agents aren't being demoted, because even if they lose their pilot position, the salary is the same.
"This is not a punishment. He suffers no loss of pay or status as a result of the transfer, and he will not be required to go to Afghanistan," said Garrison K. Courtney, a DEA spokesman.
Margarita disagreed, noting that DEA pilots receive from $1,000 to $2,000 more a month in hazard pay.
"He's very disappointed in the agency that he has served for 25 years," Margarita said.
Such complaints, so far mostly arising from the Aviation Division, could complicate the Obama administration's efforts to send dozens of additional DEA agents to Afghanistan as part of a civilian and military personnel "surge" that aims to stabilize the country.
Two years ago, the State Department told U.S. diplomats that they might be forced to serve in Iraq in the largest call-up since Vietnam. The announcement triggered an outcry, but the department eventually found enough volunteers to fill the jobs.
Courtney said the DEA has no immediate plans to change its staffing practices in Afghanistan.
Offield, who oversaw marijuana eradication in California's national forests, alleges in his complaint that the agency's decision to send him to Afghanistan is part of a larger pattern of harassment based on his age and sexual orientation.
Offield said the harassment began soon after he told a colleague that he's gay.
The retaliation, he said, became worse after he appeared on MSNBC, where he told reporters that he didn't think the DEA was winning the battle against California's marijuana cultivators.
About a month later, he was told he was going to Afghanistan, although he'd requested to go elsewhere.