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Iraq veteran says he was prohibited from returning to FDNY Academy

Iraq veteran says he was prohibited from returning to FDNY Academy


Decorated Iraq combat vet Samuel Berger, who has years of experience fighting fires, has been rejected from re-entering the FDNY Academy — after he had to take an emergency leave because his mother fell ill, the Daily News has learned.

The FDNY and a second city agency pointed fingers at each other for blocking FDNY hopeful Berger, 30, from returning to the academy for the upcoming June class.

“Not to give Sam Berger this opportunity with the FDNY would be a slap in the face to all those who have served in combat,” said his attorney, Peter Gleason.

“With two Purple Hearts, Sam is indeed a hero; a grateful nation will be watching how the FDNY processes his application.”

Berger, of Columbus, Ohio, served his country with the Marine Corps, patrolling the dangerous roads of Fallujah during two tours in 2006 and 2007.

Shrapnel ripped into his arm in one IED blast and he suffered a concussion in the second. He earned two Purple Hearts for his injuries.

Back in the States, he settled down with his girlfriend and her two kids and spent six years working for the Columbus Fire Department before applying to the FDNY.

“When people ask why, I use the analogy that I was working for the Columbus Clippers, a good minor league team, but the Yankees called,” Berger said.

“If you want to be a plastic surgeon, you go to L.A. If you want to be a firefighter, you go to New York City.”

Berger scored high on the written tests, flew to New York for the required run and processing during the week of Dec. 6. He passed the run and thought he’d be entering the fire academy’s June class.

But all of a sudden, on Dec. 10, he was ordered to report to the academy on Dec. 12.

He dropped everything and made it on time, staying with friends and in Airbnbs. He did well in training and says he had a 95% average.

On Jan. 5, he found out his mother was in the hospital back in Ohio for an aneurysm. He decided to take an emergency leave starting Jan. 8 and told staff at the academy. Initially, they were sympathetic and said he could enter the June class.

“Generally, they told me that you are given the option to recertify your list number one time with the city,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, that’s the route I’m going to have to go.’ ”

Once his mother was on the mend, he asked the FDNY to place him in the June class.

That’s when the resistance started.

Berger got an overheated letter from FDNY Supervisory Investigator Michael Fellner, who wrote, “I think you need to be more concerned about the candidate next in line who you deprived the opportunity to be in this class.”

“I said, ‘Trust me, I didn’t plan this,’” Berger replied.

 

From there on, he got the runaround and then unreturned messages — with June fast approaching, Gleason said.

FDNY lawyer Vaughn Browne passed the buck to the city Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

In a May 19 letter, Katrina Porter of citywide services passed that buck back to the FDNY, saying it was not her department’s decision.

“They were passing it off on one another,” Berger said.

Gleason tried repeatedly to get an explanation from Browne, who responded the matter was closed without elaborating.

An FDNY official said Wednesday Berger applied for, but never received, an official leave of absence from the Columbus Fire Department. While his request was being reviewed, he left for New York. Later, Columbus denied the leave request, the official said.

He was not allowed to recertify because it’s against FDNY rules to work for two government agencies at the same time, the official said.

Berger acknowledges all this, but says there’s a simple explanation. He was expecting to enter the June class, but the FDNY told him to report in two days for the December class.

Suddenly he had 48 hours to get his affairs in order, including dealing with his job and family.

So he applied for the leave from Columbus but took unused vacation days in between to bridge the gap, and then his mom got sick.

“The leave wasn’t the issue,” he said. “I just wasn’t given enough notice. From there everything went downhill. I would have had all my ducks in a row for June.”

A Dec. 6 email from Fellner, written just four days before he was ordered to report, suggests the FDNY was aware that the short window might a problem.

“I spoke with the officials at the Fire Academy and explained your situation,” Fellner wrote. “They will do their best to schedule you for the run, Administrative Processing and Quartermaster all in one day tomorrow so that you can return to Ohio.”

Berger’s lawyer said the FDNY simply didn’t give him enough time to prepare for a new life in New York.

“They are trying to conflate the civil service laws of two states. They are trying to divert attention. The bottom line is that he qualified and he wants the job.”

Berger hopes department brass will change their minds.

“The case is being reviewed,” FDNY spokesman James Long said Friday.

“I don’t expect special treatment,” Berger said before learning he has a glimmer of hope, “but I would like to think that I am deserving, at least, of equal treatment.”