Speaking Truth to Power
An interview with Laura Berg
By Steven Robert Allen
By now, the story has spread far and wide, taking on a life all its own. In September of last year, Laura Berg, a nurse at the local Veterans' Affairs (VA) hospital, wrote a letter to the Alibi criticizing the Bush administration for the war in Iraq and its handling of Hurricane Katrina. In her letter, which we printed, Berg advised that concerned citizens "act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit."
It certainly seemed like an innocent letter at the time. It still seems like an innocent letter to us now. The Alibi prints similar letters almost every week. Most papers do. In an open, free society, even government employees are allowed to express opinions critical of their elected leaders. It's rights such as this that distinguish the United States from, say, Saddam's Iraq.
For these reasons, we were shocked to learn that Berg's work computer was impounded and searched by VA security officers shortly after we printed her letter. She says she was then told by her union representative that her letter to the Alibi had gone "through VA channels" to the FBI in Washington. Berg wasn't fired, but she was told by VA Human Resources Chief Mel Hooker that she was being investigated for "sedition"—a federal statutory crime involving plots to violently overthrow the U.S. government.
Since her ACLU lawyers went public with the case, Berg's ordeal has been covered by media across the country. The Alibi reported this bizarre story in our Feb. 9 issue [Newscity, “Big Brother is Watching”]. Unfortunately, but understandably, the VA nurse refused to talk directly to the media.
Still, her story began picking up more and more national attention. Our Democratic senator, Jeff Bingaman, has demanded an investigation into why Berg was harassed by the federal government simply for exercising her First Amendment rights. Berg herself is demanding an apology. Her attorneys have made a Freedom of Information Act request for all government documents relating to her case.
With all this hubbub, Berg is beginning to feel more secure about speaking out in person. She is still terrified—who wouldn't be? Yet she also realizes that if she doesn't speak out about the treatment she's suffered at the hands of our government, others could face similar intimidation, merely for voicing their opinions about an administration they view as incompetent and corrupt.
Last Thursday, she consented to an interview with Amy Goodman on the nationally syndicated radio program "Democracy Now!" Last Friday, Alibi News Editor Christie Chisholm and I also had a chance to sit down with Berg—in the company of her attorneys, Larry Kronen and George Bach—for an interview during which she spoke movingly about her extraordinary experience.
Here are some excerpts.
Are you plotting the violent overthrow of the United States government?
LB: (laughs) Absolutely not. I have absolutely no concept whatsoever of violence or even aggressiveness. I would like to see some changes, I think most of us would really like to see some changes, but we're going to work within the system.
You talked briefly in the letter about your experiences working as a VA nurse. It seemed like these experiences were a catalyst for writing the letter. Could you talk some more about that, your work there and what you do?
LK: Needless to say, Laura is not speaking on behalf of the VA.
LB: I'm absolutely not speaking in any official capacity or as a VA representative. But I had a role as a clinical nurse specialist seeing many returning vets. I worked with vets from all conflicts, but, of course, over the last two years, we've seen veterans coming back from Iraq who were very, very deeply wounded, and I feel like many really had a soul sickness.
They went out there as really young, mostly naïve, patriotic men—often this was their chance to see the world or have more experiences, more opportunities. [But they found themselves] in really unspeakable positions where they had to murder women and children, civilians, not knowing who is the enemy, not being welcome in many cases.
Many of these men and women, to be able to perform as they were expected to perform, have had to steel themselves emotionally, because people cannot go on experiencing such a level of horror. For most of us, we would fall on our knees and not be able to get up. So people have come back and just been very, very damaged. I believe the public has some recognition of the problems across the country in their communities about Vietnam veterans. Addiction, homelessness, isolation, anger, violence.
Even this far down the line ...
LB: Absolutely, even this far down the line. If you say "Vietnam veteran," it is not a happy picture.
And you see a lot of similarities with this war?
LB: A lot of similarities. People coming back have experienced a lot of devastation, and, of course, they've seen horribly graphic death and destruction. They've seen their comrades and friends die, and they've seen civilians die, and they've had to kill civilians as part of their role.
What's your specific role in helping them?
LB: My specific role at the time—and I have to say I stepped back from that—was to make an assessment of people, to find out, really in a holistic way, what's going on with them, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually, and then to try to hook them into what services they might need, to make referrals for continuing care.
You mentioned that you stepped back from that role to some extent. That wasn't a consequence of your letter to the Alibi, was it?
LB: It was a consequence of the stories I was hearing from returning vets. I was not able to maintain my own integrity, you know—my own professional stance of objectivity.
So you stepped back from this role before the letter was printed?
LB: Yes. I still work some with the returning vets, and I'm on call for emergencies at the VA.
Was that a matter of choice on your part, to step back from that role?
LB: Yes, it was. At that point, I had to reduce my hours. I've come back up since then, but that's just some of the personal story behind this. ... I think this war is sanitized by the media. The media has been ... what's the word?
LB: Yes, embedded ... restricted, restrained. I think people were much more aware of civilian casualties in Vietnam than they are now. The point I want to make is that a proportion of our servicepeople have served in convoys traveling from place to place, carrying equipment, and there are women and children laying down in front of those trucks, and the trucks continue. [pauses]
This is what you've heard straight from returning vets?
LK: I actually talked to a returning vet yesterday, [who told me] they used to try to avoid them, but sometimes when they would avoid them, there would be a mine set up. So now they don't try to avoid them.
That's pretty horrific.
LB: This is very sensitive for me to say, but I think it's really important for people to hear—that it's just ghastly and many of the people there believe this is an invasion of their country. That it's not something they asked for. We know now that it was based on lies. So what would you do if an invading force came to your country? Would you lay down in front? You might.
So someone returns, they've been on that convoy, maybe they've even been a driver. They have children. Maybe their own child is the age of someone ... [pauses] So you return home and how do you relate to your wife and children? How do you relate to driving on the road?
LB: There's so much being spent over there, and it's such a carnival of lies. We have so many needs here. Having this experience in my work and then Katrina coming ...
So those two things inspired you to write the letter? On Amy Goodman's show you said this was the first time you'd written this kind of letter.
LB: It's true. I'd had an awareness that there had been many, many things that were going on that were not right. I would give donations to the various organizations that I supported, but I never wrote a letter. I would complain with my friends about what was going on, but this was really the first time that I was fired up enough to write. It just seemed that the PTSD that everyone was seeing—from Katrina, you know?—and the other kinds of environmental devastation from the hurricane came together, and I felt like I really had to say that I was a VA nurse, that I had some experience, that I wasn't just spouting what I think is happening.
What was your intention with the letter?
LB: ... People need to wake up and get real. To myself I was saying, “I'm waking up, so I'm going to write this letter, because just donating to an organization or complaining to my friends [isn't enough].” I wanted to send an arrow out into the community, or into the world, and say, “This is not right.”
I think it is a lot about waking up for me, personally, and, boy, have I woken up since the letter went out. (laughs) I think when I wrote it I wanted to express something for people who were on the fringe of concern. I didn't mean it to be simply preaching to the choir. I wanted to share something to help people get it—particularly the human cost, not just the deficit and the war budget and the Halliburton contracts.
After your letter was published, when this all started happening at the VA, what was your emotional reaction?
LB: I knew when I said I was a VA nurse that it was a little bit tender, that it was sensitive for me to say that in the letter. When I went into work, I was told by the union that I was reported through VA channels to the FBI. My heart dropped to the ... underworld. I was shocked, I was scared to death. I was also told at the time to keep very quiet about it, to keep very low-key.
About the letter?
LB: About the response.
You were told this by the union?
LB: Yes. I was trembling. I was shaking. I wasn't even able to continue work that day, and I continued to be very frightened for many months. Then, a week [after the letter was printed], I had a knock on my door and the computer was impounded. That was more fear, more intimidation. ...
LK: They found that she didn't write it on that computer, and the union never got a response back, which is one of the reasons why Laura then wrote, asking, "What's going on? What do you know about the FBI?"
LB: And, "What VA regulations did I break? Let me know. Is there something I can look at that I misunderstood?"
LK: She wasn't fired. She wasn't placed on leave. There's no reprimand put in her file, as far as we know. So there wasn't an adverse employment action that the union could follow up on, besides the outright intimidation.
What's your work environment like now?
LB: My work environment has always been great. I have the complete support of the team I work with, and throughout Behavioral Health there. In the main hospital, too. The people I work with have been very, very supportive, saying, "Even if I don't agree with your opinion in the letter, we totally support you in having the right to say that, and that you should not be intimidated at work." I have coworkers that have written memos in support. Actually, I'm on the docket to present to [the Behavioral Health Department] in the summer about the rights of employees to free speech.
You might want to bring your attorneys with you for that one.
LK: She's also gotten letters, flowers from veterans groups in Texas, she's gotten e-mails and letters of support from federal employees.
LB: I went through a couple of months of a very dark time after the union dropped me. Larry was working with me just by phone, and the ACLU agreed to take the case in the middle of December. I was just so very grateful.
It was scary, though.
LB: Oh, yeah. And it's still scary. I have a new level of fear now that I've gone to the media.
Obviously, it would be intimidating for anyone, but why have you decided to speak to the media now?
LB: The story broke as far as Mr. Hooker [the VA's head of human resources] investigating me for sedition. It went out as an AP wire; it went out through the Internet, through the blogs, and we started getting this response. The more media attention and response that I've had nationally, the more I feel protected. Even if they found some way to terminate me, I could go forward and do something else. I'm in the kind of profession where I have that freedom. There are plenty of other people who work in other areas who can't speak out. They say, "I can't lose my job." I think there are a lot of people who heard about what happened to me, and they're even more afraid. Just as there are many others who say they're not going to stand for this.
Would you do this again? Would you submit the letter again?
LB: I would. Absolutely. I would. I think I might have even said a little more in the letter. Of course, if I did, the Alibi might not have published it.
Even we have some standards.
LB: (laughs) This letter ... it's like throwing a stone into a body of water. It goes down, but there are ripples that go out. I was slapped back by the administration at my work, but it made more ripples, actually, in the water, and that goes out into the community, a lot further than I ever would have imagined. It was just very inspiring. I've recognized even more how small the international community is, to have a story go out like this and have thousands of people respond. So I think that's been a real revelation to me, to see that one action with some fire behind it—and I don't mean in any kind of seditious way, of course—may serve to illuminate something, a lot more than we know.
So I encourage people to write letters, and to say who they are, and where they work, if they have the freedom to do that, and maybe they can band together. Because we can protect each other. If you're isolated, then it's always much more fearful.
It's scary to do this interview. I've never been a speaker. Speaking on the fly like this is really tough for me. ... But I think we need to make some changes. We need to create some alternatives. Certainly not in any kind of violent way. But I encourage people to turn off their televisions, come out, meet their neighbors and speak for truth.
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