Fear and Loathing at the Veterans’ Administration

The New Mexico Veteran’s Administration nurse harassed and investigated for sedition because she wrote a newspaper letter criticizing Dubya Bush and his mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort is speaking out about an experience she calls “chilling.” In an interview with “Democracy Now”‘s Amy Goodman, Laura Berg says the fiasco – which she believes violated her First Amendment rights – has created an atmosphere of fear at the Albuqurque VA hospital where she still works.

Some excerpts from the discussion, starting with what happened after her letter appeared in the newspaper The Alibi:

Laura Berg: It was published, and then it was a couple days interim, and I went into work on a Monday. I immediately had co-workers come to me and say, “We really support your letter but you may be in trouble, and you need to go to the union immediately.” I went to the union, and I was told by the union that I had been reported up — my letter and me had been reported up through V.A. channels to the F.B.I.

Amy Goodman: To the F.B.I.?

Berg: To the F.B.I. And, you know, as a direct response to my publication of this letter. And —

Goodman: Were you surprised?

Berg: Oh, I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked. I was — I was unbelieving. I was frightened, very, very frightened. And I felt this was, you know, intimidation. You know. And it was — I was told that it wasn’t really — it was just through channels, you know, it wasn’t anything really against me personally, just that my letter came in on a search engine, and it was sent up. It wasn’t really local. However, it was, oh, a week later that approximately a week later I was sitting at my desk and there was a knock on the door. And my — the information security representatives came to impound my computer. They served me with a memo saying there was a belief I had written this on my work computer, and that would be a misuse of government equipment. So I guess I could say I was — at that point it was local, you know. It was about me. It was about my letter. And it was local repercussions, so this was a memo written by our human resources director, Mr. Hooker.

Goodman: So you had your computer seized?

Berg: Yes, it was taken — I was in the middle of writing, you know, my notes for the patients I had seen. The computer was taken. And, of course, I asked, “Is there some other computer for me do my work?” And no one had thought about that. And it was returned, you know, within a day. But I understand the hard drive — and I do know now that the hard drive was removed and examined. And I have to say, you know, this was an incredibly frightening experience. To be told that you are reported to the F.B.I., that can mean, under the current PATRIOT Act’s sneak and peek, I mean, my home can be – you know, people can go in. I could be followed. My phone could be tapped. It was just a chilling experience. And also for my co-workers, too, I have to say.

Goodman: Why? What has happened to them?

Berg: Well, people, you know — I mean, we believe we have, you know, First Amendment right to free speech. But we have been — you know, to have harassment or intimidation –

Goodman: Are they afraid?

Berg: Yes, they are. Yes, they are. And I have had – I’ve actually had calls and emails from federal employees across the nation, you know, in support and thanking for me being brave, you know, to actually, number one, write the letter, and number two, you know, to actually say this is not right.Laura

The VA has not apologized for its actions or for accusing Berg of sedition, the federal crime of advocating the violent takeover of the government.

Goodman: Let me read again from the memo of Nov. 9 from the Chief of Human Resources Management Service. “In your letter to the editor of the weekly Alibi,” the memo says, “you declared yourself a V.A. nurse and publicly declared the government, which employs you, to have tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence and advocated ‘act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit.’ The agency is bound by law to investigate and pursue any act, which potentially represents sedition. You are reminded that government equipment is just that, and the government may apprehend, investigate use or permit the use of such at its discretion and direction. Signed, Mel Hooker, Chief of Human Resources Management Service. ” Your response to this letter, saying — to investigate you for sedition?

Berg: Amy, I did not sign away my First Amendment rights as a citizen, you know, by choosing to serve in the federal government and choosing to serve veterans and care for people that have been wounded like this, you know. And this letter sounds like something from a totalitarian regime, you know, that we are supposedly going in [to] share our democracy. This is way out of line. This was way out line. I have a right to speak my opinion. I have a right to say I’m a V.A. nurse. I do not speak for the V.A. I speak as a public citizen. And I — you know, we have to — I thank Larry [Kronen, her ACLU attorney], I thank the attorneys and the support across the country, because we really need to speak out about this. This is really, really frightening.

Berg’s fight continues. Through the ACLU, she is attempting, via the Freedom of Information Act, to learn what information the FBI has collected from her. She is demanding a public apology for the way in which she was treated and, with her senator, she is calling on a VA policy directive that makes it clear that its employees should have the right to free speech without fear of reprisal.

Goodman: Are you concerned about speaking out today and this first time in this national broadcast, Laura Berg?

Berg: Yes, I am, Amy. And, you know, as I say, subsequent to these memos, I have had a personal discussion with Mary Dowling, and she has said —

Goodman: And again, her position with the V.A.?

Kronen: She is my director at the Albuquerque V.A. And she said, you know, you may express your opinion, but we prefer that you do not say you are a V.A. nurse. And so, I am saying I am a V.A. nurse. And some of my fire in writing this letter about Katrina in Iraq is from my experience as a V.A. nurse. I’m stepping — I’m stepping, you know, off the edge here, and I do feel that there is some jeopardy to me and my position. But at this point it’s more important for me to say this. You know, and if I have to risk my job, the V.A. is going to lose an excellent commission, you know, that does not bring politics into the workplace, you know, and is a very caring person. And this country, you know, will lose many, many dedicated, caring people, you know, if this continues. And, I mean, we are going to lose a lot more than that. We are going to lose a whole lot.

Indeed, and this should be a wakeup call for those who believe in the protection and preservation of rights supposedly guaranteed to all.

I applaud Berg for coming forward and telling her story (and worry about sharing it – it is tax time, after all).

Do read the entire interview with Berg and her attorney (which also includes fascinating insights into the experiences of those who serve on the front lines of military combat). Her words offer further evidence that the government is violating everything the US is supposed to embody – principles of justice, freedom and equality. It is employing fear and terror in an effort to mandate and enforce conformity and the silencing of dissenting voices. In my book, that is the crime.

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