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Punished for Patriotism; What Do Young Women of America Think About Joining the Military?

Aired November 30, 2001 - 20:30   ET



She says tried to help catch the September 11 hijackers, and it cost her her job.


EILEEN LUONGO, REGISTERED NURSE: I said, am I fired because I talked to the FBI? He said, "Yes."


ANNOUNCER: Flashpoint: "Punished for Patriotism."

The battle in Afghanistan, young women weigh in on the war. Should they serve? Should they fight? Should America even be there? And burning mad, he allegedly posed as a firefighter, pretending to help New York's bravest. But instead, prosecutors say he was running a scam.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those kinds of officers are really the worst.


ANNOUNCER: THE POINT. Now from Washington, Greta Van Susteren.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: No good deed goes unpunished. The government is calling on anyone with information about the September 11 attacks to step forward. So she did, never dreaming it would get her in trouble.

Flashpoint: "Punished for patriotism." CNN's Mark Potter has the story.


MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In filing her lawsuit, Eileen Luongo, a registered nurse, says she was fired for doing her civic duty. It all began two months ago, when she saw paper photos of all the suspected September 11 hijackers. Luongo says she believes she had seen four of the men in the office of a now defunct drug rehabilitation facility in Miami, where she used to work, and where some of the suspects, she says, used the computer.

LUONGO: And I just was in shock. I was like, "Oh, my God, I can't believe it. These are the three men I was with." And I was as close as this to them, you know, standing next to them. And then I looked a little farther. And then I saw Mohamed Atta here. And I was -- I couldn't believe that I had seen him earlier on another occasion.

POTTER: After seeing the newspaper, Luongo says she called the FBI and agreed to meet two agents briefly at Fort Lauderdale Hospital, where she worked part-time. But when they arrived, she says hospital officials became angry. And she and the agents had to leave the building. When she returned, she says, she was confronted by her supervisor.

LUONGO: He goes, "Turn in your badge and your keys. You're fired."

And I said, "Am I fired because I talked to the FBI?" She said, "Yes." I said, "That's the reason why I'm fired because I talked to the FBI?" And she said, "Yes, it was inappropriate to bring them into the hospital."

POTTER: Luongo's attorney has now filed a lawsuit against Fort Lauderdale Hospital under Florida's Whistleblower Act.

ROBERT WEISBERG, ATTORNEY FOR EILEEN LUONGO: This is immoral. And it was wrong to punish someone like Eileen who had this knowledge that the FBI needed and wanted, in response to this national tragedy. It's just sinful, shameful. And I think, you know, again, even the -- putting the law aside, it's immoral and wrong.

POTTER: FBI officials say they too are surprised and upset Luongo was fired for trying to help during a national crisis.

ROBERT CASEY, FBI SUPERVISOR: She did cooperate. She cooperated fully. She answered all the questions that were posed to her by the FBI agents. And in fact, her information led to very valuable follow- up investigation later, which is still being followed up.

POTTER: Despite numerous requests by CNN, hospital officials refused comment on the lawsuit and on Luongo's allegation. As it turns out, Fort Lauderdale Hospital itself was already investigation by the FBI, looking into possible health care fraud.

(on camera): No charges have been filed. And the FBI says its questioning of Luongo had nothing to do with that. This time, it was investigating terror in America, asking the public for help.

Mark Potter, CNN, Miami.


VAN SUSTEREN: Officials at Fort Lauderdale Hospital have refused to talk to us after repeated requests for comment. But joining us from Miami, nurse Eileen Luongo. And also from Miami, her attorney, Robert Weisberg. First to you, Eileen, how certain are you that the people you saw were the hijackers?

LUONGO: I'm very positive it was the hijackers I saw in the newspaper. I was with them for about a half hour to 45 minutes. So I had a very good, you know, view of them.

VAN SUSTEREN: Before we get to the fact that you have been fired from your hospital job, I want to talk a little bit more about that. Now what were they doing at the drug rehabilitation center where you were working?

LUONGO: Well, I was working alone. And they just came into the office and proceeded to use one of the computers. And they were typing a letter. I don't know all the composition of the letter, except they were writing some letter that they were looking for a word that had "absence" in it, because they asked me for the word "absence." And when they also asked me to help them compose the structure of the letter. And when they were done, they finished it, they signed it, and then they left.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did the letter say?

LUONGO: I don't know all the context of the letter because they were typing it. And at one point, they asked me to even sit down and help them type the letter, but I did not want to sit down at the computer and type the letter because I was very uncomfortable with them. I felt that there was something different about them, their personality. And they were just different. They seemed like they were on a mission, to me. Their personality, I was very uncomfortable with them in the room. And so I did not want to sit down at the computer. And I just stayed where I was and talked to them.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, outside of the time the FBI came to the hospital, your next job when you were fired, have you spoken to the FBI on any other occasion about these hijackers?

LUONGO: I spoke to them on the telephone on a couple of occasions. I spoke to them at the hospital in person. I have not spoken to them about the hijackers on any other occasion. I will be meeting with them in the future.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bob, you have filed a lawsuit on behalf of your client, Eileen, who has now been fired. What do you make of the fact that she was fired for talking to the FBI?

WEISBERG: Well, I think it's just incredible that here, Eileen, who has this information which the FBI desperately wanted. And you know, the context here was when -- and Eileen had spoken to the special agents, it wasn't like they could wait a week or so to schedule the meeting. They wanted to schedule as soon as possible. And it was 6:00 when her shift began working at the hospital.

And they needed to show her pictures, which couldn't be done over the telephone, had to be done in person. And Eileen accommodated their requests. I think it's just incredible that in response to her spending 15, 20 minutes with the FBI three weeks after September 11, the hospital's response was to fire her.

VAN SUSTEREN: Eileen, what did you say to the hospital? Didn't you explain to them that you were supplying information that might be of some value to the FBI?

LUONGO: Well, I tried do contact Mr. Sosa, the administrator, a couple times before I came into my shift, but he was in meetings I was told. And at the beginning of the shift, I went to his office, but he was in a meeting, so I wasn't able to talk to him to tell him that they were coming. And then they came right at the beginning of my shift. So I brought them into a private room to talk to them.

And then within two minutes of starting to talk with them, he came into the meeting. And he was very angry. And they explained why they were there and who they were. And he was still very angry and asked them to leave. And they told him it was a national emergency and why they were there. And he still refused to listen to them.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, since that incident when you were fired, I mean even later in that day or at any time subsequent, have you spoken to the hospital and said, look this is what happened, I was trying to help the FBI. Maybe you don't understand to try to sort of reclaim your job?

LUONGO: I tried when I went back inside to talk to them, but Mr. Sosa would not even look at me or talk to me or anything. He just refused to talk to me at all. And the FBI, for three days, the two agents talked to the hospital on my behalf and tried to get my job back. And they were even hopeful that they would get my job back. But on the third day. they just told me the hospital totally refused to give me my job back.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bob, when you talked to the hospital, what is their explanation? What is their justification for not giving her the job back?

WEISBERG: Well, we still haven't heard any explanation or justification for firing her or not giving her her job back. And I think as Eileen pointed out, the agents themselves, went to hospital management and tried to explain why they were there, how critical this information was, how they needed to speak with her on, you know, at that time. And notwithstanding the special agents who were investigating, explaining and pleading on Eileen's behalf, you know, she remained terminated.

VAN SUSTEREN: And of course, my invitation to the hospital is still outstanding. If they want to join us some time and talk about this, but we've run out of time. My thanks tonight to Eileen Luongo and her attorney, Robert Weisberg.

In just a few minutes, the man accused of going from firefighter to fraud.


VAN SUSTEREN: In Afghanistan, U.S. bombs are falling on Kandahar, the Taliban's final stronghold, as troops try to smoke Osama bin Laden out of hiding. Is the U.S. strategy in line? Should America be there it all? A couple of weeks ago, we talked to four young men about the war. Tonight, some of America's young women are here with their point.

Joining me from Chicago, 22-year-old Bridget McCauley; in Sacramento, California, 21-year-old Erin Padilla; from San Francisco, 25-year-old Shannon Altamirano. And in Atlanta, Georgia, 24-year-old Rachel Hamby.

Rachel, first to you. If called, if asked, would you join the military to fight over in Afghanistan?



HAMBY: Well, as a Quaker, my religion, we don't believe in war. We believe peace is the right way to go. And you know, there's other things that you can do in order to solve the problem of September 11 and of terrorism in general.

VAN SUSTEREN: Give me a hint. What would you suggest we do to solve the problem of September 11, short of war?

HAMBY: Negotiate, you know. I know it might be hard to negotiate with bin Laden's people and the Taliban, but you know, there's definitely other things that we can do to settle this problem. Even take away certain things that, like such as trading, until they do negotiate with us.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, Erin Padilla, what about you? Are you willing to go to war?

ERIN PADILLA, 21 YEARS OLD: Absolutely. I enlisted on October 31. And I have enlisted in the Navy. I believe it's an absolutely necessary step for our generation to take part in this. It's a crucial thing for people all across the country to join together to support our country and do whatever is necessary.

VAN SUSTEREN: And you say that have enlisted. When do you go to boot camp?

PADILLA: I leave on December 18.

VAN SUSTEREN: No hesitation?

PADILLA: It's a little -- I'm a little apprehensive, but I mean, I take everything as it comes.

VAN SUSTEREN: Shannon, what about you? If called or if asked, would you join the military?


VAN SUSTEREN: Why not? ALTAMIRANO: I believe that this war isn't addressing the root of the problem. First of all...

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, go ahead.

ALTAMIRANO: Go ahead, please.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is war ever -- I mean, is it ever necessary in any instance that one should join the military?

ALTAMIRANO: I don't believe so. I think that our government first needs to address the problem at hand, why certain international communities have such animosity towards us. And if our public understands and accepts it, and they choose to go fight, then that's their right. But I don't agree with war. There are more constructive ways to find peace and search for peace.

VAN SUSTEREN: Shannon, so do you disagree with the Bush administration strategy so far?


VAN SUSTEREN: And so, give me an idea of what your strategy would be?

ALTAMIRANO: First of all, we need to take accountability for our flawed foreign policy. We have to admit that we've made mistakes and that we've permitted global oppression and that we fueled would-be terrorist fire. And now they've built up their networks and have inflicted such destruction.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bridget, the question to you. If called, are you willing to enlist in the military?

BRIDGET MCCAULEY, 22 YEARS OLD: Well, I am willing to enlist in the military. I think if my country needed me, it's my duty and my obligation to do so. And I think, you know, you see a lot more women enlisting in the military now and getting involved in the conflict in Afghanistan and were involved in the conflict in the Persian War. And I think that as citizens of this country, women have just as much of a responsibility as men in times of need, to volunteer to go out there and just serve their country, even in the face of combat if the need may be.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bridget, what would be your job? What kind of job would attract you in the military?

MCCAULEY: Well I'm not exactly sure. I'd probably prefer to stay from combat if I could, something with public relations or something along those lines. But again, I think the heart of the matter is that if I receive that notice, you know, if we were in a situation where our country were threatened to the extent that I needed to get involved, I would be willing to put my life out there, and you know, go into combat or any other -- take any other job necessary to ensure the survival of our country, because I really do believe that that's something we all are responsible for. VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to talk about women in combat. Should that ever be an option? We will be right back. Stay with us.


VAN SUSTEREN: Welcome back, we're talking with our POINT panel, women and war. Joining me from Chicago, 22-year-old Bridget McCauley; from Sacramento, California, 21-year-old Erin Padilla; from San Francisco, 25-year-old Shannon Altamirano; and in Atlanta, 24-year-old Rachel Hamby.

Shannon to you, although you're opposed to joining the military, what is your position in light of the fact that we do have a military, as to women being actually on the ground in combat, rather than providing combat support?

ALTAMIRANO: I'm sorry could you repeat the question?

VAN SUSTEREN: What is your thought on whether women should be on the ground in combat or whether they should be as they are now in a combat support mode? Should women fight on the ground?

ALTAMIRANO: If women choose to and they're physically able to do it, then that's their right. And they have that choice.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it a matter of right or is a matter of equality for you?

ALTAMIRANO: Well, women are just as capable as men. I don't know what you need to fight a war, but if it's a matter of determination, then it depends on each individual.

VAN SUSTEREN: Rachel, what about you? I know that your religion that you are opposed to the war because you're Quaker, but in light of the fact that we do have a military, should the women hold equal responsibility? Should they do the jobs that men can if they're able to?

HAMBY: Well, no, I don't believe that, especially over in Afghanistan. You have two issues. You have the Northern Alliance that we're helping fight this war with. And I feel as though when we're over there and their belief is that women should not fight in war, it's as though we're you know, just I don't know, sort of doing the wrong thing for them. They're helping us out.

And then the second thing is if a woman is captive in Afghanistan, that's -- I could never imagine what could happen to them. I would think that they'd have the worst punishment than men do because of the way they treat them.


MCCAULEY: Building off that idea, I'm sorry.

VAN SUSTEREN: Go ahead, Bridget. MCCAULEY: I was just going say that I disagree. I really do think that women should be allowed into any aspect of combat, that they are able to in terms of qualifications based on -- I mean, perhaps physical or skills qualifications. And I think we have the exact same scenario during the Persian Gulf War. A lot of the skeptics said, "Well what happens to women over there?" I mean this is again an Islamic society and one where women really weren't as involved in the fighting. And what would happen to a woman if she was captured? And women were captured. And I believe women were actually killed.

And the point is that it's very important responsibility for a woman to be able to take on any combat duty that they are, you know, physically and otherwise qualified to do. And I think that there are lots of excuses for why women shouldn't be able to do these types of roles, but no really valid reasons.

VAN SUSTEREN: Erin, since you're our only woman here who's actually going to be the in the military in about 18 days, what's your thought on that? Should women be fighting on the ground side by side with men?

PADILLA: I believe that it is a right that should be provided to the women in the military. Obviously, there are some physical drawbacks that may make it less, a little less comfortable for them to do so, but I believe that -- I mean the training is out there for anyone in the military. And if you have the desire to do so, I believe that fighting for your country, no matter if it's combat support or actual ground combat, it should be available to all men and women.

VAN SUSTEREN: Erin, what do you think you're going to do in the military?

PADILLA: I am signed up for the nuclear engineering program.

VAN SUSTEREN: And so do you have any idea what that's going mean?

PADILLA: It will involve basic maintenance on the nuclear reactors, probably mostly on the aircraft carriers that are nuclear- powered, since women are not allowed on the submarines as of yet.

VAN SUSTEREN: And what do your family and friends think about the fact that in 18 days you're going to be in boot camp?

PADILLA: Mostly everybody is a little bit sad. But I mean, I write pretty good letters. So everything should be pretty fine.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, well, we wish you the best. And also wish the best to the rest of the panelists who joined me this evening tonight. Thank to Bridget McCauley, Erin Padilla, Sharon Altamirano and Rachel Hamby.

September 11 was a call to arms. Tonight's final point, a free ride. To say September 11 changed everything is not an overstatement. It did. Words can't express the terror and the heartbreak. But while the images of the planes deliberately crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are indelibly marked in our minds, who can forget the courage of the firefighters and the police, rushing in the direction of a falling building, trying to save lives, and in some cases, losing their own?

And in the days since, the exhausting and emotionally draining around-the-clock search for survivors, and the seemingly endless funerals. The police and firefighters from across the country who converged on New York to help are heroes. The city of New York has attempted to reward them for their heroism, as well as meet their basic needs as they continued to work in the days and weeks after the 11.

But as luck would have it, we may have found a rat. Jerome Brandell went to New York and allegedly impersonated a firefighter. He got food, clothing and shelter, courtesy of the city. He even got free tickets to a Mets game. Brandell is no firefighter and he's anything but a hero. He is a -- well, I'll let you decide.

My point, if Jerome Brandell wants free room and board courtesy of New York, I think he should have it, but this time it won't be the city. It will be New York state. That is the State Correctional Department. He now faces up to 15 years in prison. I hope Brandell gets what he wants, he's earned it.

Let me know what you think about the actions Jerome Brandell's accused of. Send an e-mail to That's one word, askgreta.

I'm Greta Van Susteren in Washington. "LARRY KING LIVE" is next. I'll see you back here Monday. Have a great weekend.




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