TAMPA — John Stroncheck says he's having difficulty finding work in the defense industry for doing the one thing he has come to believe is seldom forgiven in government service:
Blowing the whistle on illegal activity.
"I'm thinking of becoming a truck driver," he joked.
Six months after Stroncheck, a civilian employee at MacDill Air Force Base, went public in a Tampa Bay Times story about what he believed was illegal intelligence gathering at U.S. Special Operations Command, he is unemployed, facing bankruptcy and trying to put his career back on track.
In his first interview since that August 2013 story, the Tampa resident recounted the career repercussions he faced by going to the media. The day after that story appeared, Stroncheck was fired at the government's request from a job working for a defense contractor, according to a letter by the contractor Stroncheck provided to the Times.
"If I were a policy maker, I would be extremely concerned about this," Stroncheck said. "They should be happy when people come forward and blow the whistle. That's what it is all supposed to be about — honest, open, transparent" work by those working on the government's behalf.
"You have to stand up for what is right," Stroncheck said. "That's a big part of any job — doing the right thing."
The Times story last year detailed how Stroncheck said he was asked to collect intelligence on an American citizen in 2009 while he worked at a SOCom operation at MacDill. SOCom, which commands the nation's commandos, is headquartered at the base.
Stroncheck refused, he said, because doing so without explicit legal authority is illegal. His supervisor, he said, became enraged.
Stroncheck said he knew from others in his office that intelligence on U.S. citizens was collected routinely at the Tampa command. SOCom has denied that allegation, noting the Defense Intelligence Agency and SOCom inspector generals had investigated and found no illegal activity.
At the time, Stroncheck said, he was on the DIA's payroll working at what was a SOCom operation.
"I understand what he alleges, but just because someone alleges something doesn't make it true," SOCom spokesman Ken McGraw said last year. A "(SOCom) inquiry did determine some people needed to be retrained in the procedures associated with collecting information on U.S. persons. . . . Some people were not as familiar as they should be with the procedures associated with collecting information on U.S. persons and needed additional training or retraining."
Stroncheck said he resigned under pressure from the DIA in October 2009 after one year on the job, fearing his supervisor was building a case to fire him in retaliation.
He eventually found work with a defense contractor.
Stroncheck's story was published in the Times last August while he worked in Afghanistan for Six3 Intelligence Solutions Inc., a Virginia-based defense contractor. When the story appeared, Stroncheck had been in the country less than a month and expected to remain there for a year.
The day after the story was published, Stroncheck was notified that he was being removed from the job. In a letter, Six3 told him the company had "been notified by the government to remove you from" an assigned project. The Army was in charge of this contract.
"Six3 has decided this is not a successful work relationship for you or us and has decided to end your 'at will' employment effective on your redeployment to the United States," the letter said.
The company told him in a second letter it had no other positions available. "We have searched for a position for you, however, with no other positions available for someone with your experience and skills," the company said.
An Army spokesman at the Pentagon said he could not comment on a private personnel matter. "As he was a contractor, and not a government employee, the terms of his employment are with the contractor who engaged him," said civilian Army spokesman William Layer.
Six3 and DIA officials did not return messages seeking comment. A SOCom spokesman said the command played no part in the company's decision to dismiss Stroncheck and noted that when he worked at MacDill, Stroncheck was a DIA employee.
"Mr. Stoncheck was not working on a (SOCom) contract when the government asked for him to be removed from the project he was working on in Afghanistan," SOCom spokesman Ken McGraw said in an email. "USSOCOM does not know anything about it."
Stroncheck said he has no idea who would have asked for his removal.
"Someone was behind it," Stroncheck said. "Someone came up with the idea to get rid of me. I don't know who."
Stroncheck said what most concerned him is that a civilian employee has little recourse to fight against what he views as an improper termination.
"You just don't fire somebody without hearing their side of the story if there is a problem," he said. "Where is my ability to have recourse? There isn't any. So they get away with it. They can do it as much as they want."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]