As the Obama administration ramps up the Drug Enforcement Administration's presence in Afghanistan, some special-agent pilots contend that they're being illegally forced to go to a combat zone, while others who've volunteered say they're not being properly equipped.
In interviews with McClatchy Newspapers, more than a dozen DEA agents describe a badly managed system in which some pilots have been sent to Afghanistan under duress or as punishment for bucking their superiors.
Such complaints, so far mostly arising from the DEA's 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.
Veteran DEA pilot Daniel Offield has alleged in an employment discrimination complaint he was told if he refuses to go to Afghanistan in July he'll be demoted. The Stockton, Calif., agent asked for a reprieve because he was in the process of adopting two special-needs children and offered to serve his required temporary duty in other countries.
Another agent, David Beavers, told McClatchy Newspapers that he was ordered in July 2007 to prepare to go to Afghanistan in two weeks while he was on bereavement leave after his mother-in-law died. To avoid going, the Orlando, Fla., pilot decided to retire early.
Both men have flown for the DEA in Latin American countries wracked by drug violence, but they say service in a combat zone should be treated as voluntary because they're not military personnel.
"You could say that the war on drugs is dangerous," said Beavers, a DEA pilot for more than 20 years. "But it's not quite like Afghanistan, where you can get your legs blown off by an (improvised explosive device)."
Agents said supervisors told them that working in dangerous countries is part of their job requirements, but Offield's Sacramento, Calif.-based lawyer said such compulsory duty violates a 2008 federal law that requires civilian personnel to serve voluntarily.
"The DEA is not only violating the law," said attorney Richard Margarita, a former DEA agent and county prosecutor. "They could very well be sending Dan Offield to his death."
The Obama administration has said it doesn't expect problems with finding volunteers for Afghanistan missions, despite an ambitious strategy that calls for sending hundreds of additional civilian personnel. The plan already faces long odds in a country of resurgent Islamic militants, endemic corruption and widespread opium trafficking.
At least one other agency has faced similar complaints about compulsory duty.
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.
DEA officials with the Aviation Division referred questions about the Afghanistan assignments to agency headquarters. Garrison Courtney, a DEA spokesman who responded to written questions, said that agents aren't being demoted, because even if they lose their pilot position, the salary is the same.
Courtney said pilots "are expected to support DEA's global mission," and that the Aviation Division "does not have the luxury" of allowing them to pick where they fly on temporary duty because many of the more than 100 pilots don't have the experience to fly in Afghanistan.
He said if pilots don't want to go, they have "the option to transfer back to an enforcement division and conduct domestic drug enforcement investigations."
By MARISA TAYLOR
In: Iraq, Afghanistan, News, Middle East
Tags: DEA, Drug, Enforcement, Agency, Agents, Ambushed, in, Afghanistan, Firefight, with, Afghan, National, Army, Police, ANA, ANP, A10, Marines, USMC, Firefight, JDAM, 500lb, Airstrike,
Location: Kandahar, Kandahar, Afghanistan (load item map)
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