Laura Berg is not a black-tie kind of person. But she found herself in nice clothes at a PEN American gala in New York City getting a First Amendment award. She says she felt a little like "Cinderella tapped to go to the ball" on April 28, sitting alongside the likes of Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. The PEN American Center counts among its literary missions the defense of free expression.
Berg penned a letter to the Alibi in the fall of 2005. A psychiatric nurse at the Albuquerque Veterans Affairs hospital, she was reported to the FBI for her letter denouncing the government's missteps coping with Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War. Her work computer was confiscated. She was notified by VA Human Resources Chief Mel Hooker that her letter could be considered "sedition": the act of plotting to violently overthrow the U.S. government.
The story went national and was picked up by Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!" The media attention, she says, "felt very supportive, because it was a very hard, kind of harsh and lonely experience with what was going on at the VA. I was scared. There was the issue about the FBI and not knowing who was listening in on my calls or watching my Internet, or who was scrutinizing my work."
In that dark time, Berg never could have imagined that she would find herself accepting an award two-and-a-half years later—or seeing her name on the editorial page of the New York Times.
Berg arrived in New York on Saturday, April 26, and got a call on Sunday morning from a friend in Albuquerque saying her 2005 letter was mentioned in the Times. "We suppose nothing should surprise us in these days of government zealotry. But the horror and the shame of that witch hunt should shock everyone," the editorial sang.
Berg continued to work at the VA for a year after the negative backlash to her letter. She says most people at the VA are doing a good job, and "I didn't want to abandon my work or the people I was working with."
With pressure from the ACLU and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the Department of Veterans Affairs apologized to Berg. Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson wrote a letter of apology to Berg, but she says it wasn't quite satisfactory.
"Nicholson's letter said Mel Hooker had been—not penalized—but he had been admonished," she says. "He was still the chief of HR. It came around to a year later, he was still in power—although having done this against me, he really made a fool of himself and a fool of the VA." There was no apology for reporting Berg to the FBI or taking her computer. "So there was a tacit approval of it as far as I was concerned. They said, ‘Oops. Made a mistake. We shouldn't have called it sedition. Sorry.’ ”
So Berg refinanced her house and got rid of three-quarters of everything she owned. She went on a personal sabbatical and did some traveling. She's been back in Albuquerque since late fall and working part-time as a psychiatric nurse at another facility in Albuquerque. She doesn't rule out the possibility of returning to the VA.
Still, she doesn't think what she did was such a big deal, she says. She just wrote a letter. "There are many people that are writing that are imprisoned or tortured or even killed for speaking out" around the world, she says. "I was subject to some harassment and intimidation." People thank her for what she did, she says, and it leaves her taken aback. "I did what any of us could do—should do—and I simply wrote a letter to my politicians, to my senators and to my local media about my concerns," she says. "And I signed my name, because I wanted to give validity to what I was feeling and saying."