The whistleblower wears high heels.
These she chose. They mattered to her. They would be her uniform, as much as combat boots and fatigues once had been. For Alyssa Bermudez, these heels, that dress, the makeup — they all meant that she was something new.
They represented her evolution from Bronze Star soldier to professional woman. Yet now she marches in them. On the streets of Arlington — not the sands of Iraq. She hoists a protest sign instead of a rifle. She draws stares rather than salutes.
The four-inch heels clatter on the sidewalk. Clip, clop. Down 12th Street, around the corner to Hayes Street. Clip, clop. Back again and again and again. For hours.
Bermudez says she was driven to protest by the allegedly piggish behavior of men with whom she worked at the Transportation Security Administration headquarters across the street. These men ogled her, she claims, snickered about her being in a “harem” because she’s pretty, and retaliated against her when she complained, ultimately stripping her of employment five days before her probationary period ended.
“TSA has a saying: If you see something, say something,” Bermudez, 33, says one afternoon. “Little did I know that when I said something, I would be fighting the agency. It’s a very daunting task.”
Bermudez’s unusual protest ritual, periodic marathons of six- and seven-hour days at a busy intersection, has served to surface broader problems at a troubled agency assailed by Congress for its treatment of whistleblowers who raise concerns about problems as diverse as alleged sexual harassment and security lapses at the nation’s airports. Bermudez’s vigil has gotten people talking about the indignities allegedly visited upon other female TSA employees, abuse including derogatory comments and women being forced to do push-ups in the office in skirts.
“If you want to be a bully and beat your chest, this is the agency where you want to work in management,” says Natalie Khawam, a Florida-based attorney who has handled dozens of discrimination and whistleblower cases against the TSA across the country.
Bermudez’s troubles have been exacerbated by health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which she says is related to her military service in Iraq. Although her protest has quite literally made her case highly visible, she is far from the only woman who alleges that her life has been upended by working at TSA.
A House oversight committee’s summary of its hearings on the agency in April was scathing: “As a result of a chilling culture of intimidation and retaliation at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), security gaps go unaddressed, and senior employees are not held accountable for misconduct.”
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that investigates employment issues that include whistleblower retaliation claims, has received 121 complaints from TSA this year — up from 87 last year, according to statistics provided in response to a request from The Washington Post.
“Our morale stinks. Our security is at risk,” says Andrew Rhoades, an assistant director in the TSA Office of Security Operations who testified in congressional hearings. “This is more than just grab-assing or boys-being-boys. This is a cultural problem.”
A TSA spokesman did not respond to interview requests made by phone and in writing about Bermudez’s case or about the broader issues related to whistleblowers and harassment.
Alyssa Bermudez’s story is, in a sense, a thoroughly American allegory about the modern workplace as well as the story of a country trying to accommodate a generation of soldiers whose psyches have been shaped, and sometimes tragically bruised, by far-off wars that can’t be completely comprehended by those who did not serve. It’s about how hard it is to come back. It’s about unseen wounds.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Bermudez was getting blood drawn as part of her Army enlistment. She’d signed up weeks earlier, attracted by the notion of precision and discipline. She was 17 years old. An announcement came over the intercom. Something bad was happening in New York.
On the ride home with her recruiter to Belton, Tex., about an hour north of Austin, she listened in disbelief to news of planes piercing skyscrapers. It only confirmed for her that she was on the right path.
She came from a military family. Her paternal grandfather was a Korean War infantryman. Her father, who was born in Puerto Rico, was a career Army veteran who moved to Texas, where he met Bermudez’s Mexican American mother.
Boys had always noticed Alyssa Bermudez. She’s slender and athletic, with delicate features and dark brown eyes. On her high school track squad, she says she heard the catcalls when she walked past the boys’ teams. She tried to ignore them.
It got worse in the Army, she says. During basic training, a fellow soldier kept remarking about how much he liked how she held her chest in the air when she marched, and how her hips swayed. She felt she had little choice but to put up with it. She wanted to be a soldier.
She spent four years in the Army, then took an honorable discharge to have more time at home with her young son while her husband, also a soldier, was doing long deployments in the Middle East. Being out of uniform didn’t feel right. As her marriage was crumbling, she reenlisted in late 2007, and a year later, she was being sent to Iraq, where she led a team that made complex maps to be used by field commanders, a job that earned her a Bronze Star for excellence.
Iraq left scars. She talks about a night, an awful night in Iraq, in a quavering voice. The walls were tall, she says, spooling fragments of memories through tears. She breaks down entirely recounting that moment. She can’t continue. Documents related to her Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against TSA tell the rest: She says she was sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers.
When she returned to the States after a year-long deployment, the trauma was still there, but something unexpected nagged at her. Iraq had been horrible. Yet, for some indefinable reason, she wanted to go back — the world made sense there — but she didn’t.
In those months, her anxiety was compounded. After she was stateside, two of the soldiers who’d been under her command in Iraq committed suicide — adding to the staggering toll of returning service members who have taken their lives after tours in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Bermudez left the military in 2011, after she’d reached the rank of staff sergeant, to pursue her career aspirations in the private sector. It was hard for her to shed her uniform. She kept it in her closet. She looked at it often. But she resolved to make her appearance reflect her goal of being a career woman. She bought Nine West pumps and Tahari dresses.
Bermudez earned a master’s degree in education, but finding work was hard. Finally, after months of searching, she landed a job helping process Army recruits in Maryland, where she’d moved with her second husband. Men noticed her there, too.
Notes would be left on her desk: “My heart races every time I see you.” (A former co-worker who spoke to her about the notes confirmed the incident.)
She wanted so badly to be recognized for the quality of her work. Instead, she felt like an object.
“It’s difficult to stand out as a female,” she says. “None of them knew how hard I worked.”
Bermudez was determined to succeed based on her competence, friends say, but her attractiveness could sometimes be a liability, because she’d be typecast.
“People look at her and think certain things because of society’s views of pretty women and what they should and shouldn’t be able to do,” said Karina Arcia, who served under Bermudez in the Army. “I don’t think people should be judging her for her looks. She’s not just a pretty face.”
In 2012, Bermudez took a position with a government contractor, working at the TSA in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, which handled data about security at the nation’s airports.
The TSA is an unusual creature in the constellation of American government agencies. Created in the post-9/11 security frenzy, it didn’t have the long-standing cultural footprint of older government agencies. It absorbed a melange of former law enforcement officers, military service members and airline industry employees — each professional group having distinct traditions and modes of operation.
The agency has been beset by internal criticism and blasted by some congressional leaders. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearings this spring accused the agency of wasting millions on reassignments designed to retaliate against whistleblowers, a practice that TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger acknowledged as “inappropriate.”
“It’s kind of like the Catholic Church when they had problems with priests — they moved them to another parish,” says Khawam, the Florida attorney, who says she’s handling about 100 whistleblower and discrimination complaints against the TSA. “It’s really weird and it’s, quite honestly, gross.”
At the TSA, Bermudez transitioned from contract employee to a full-time job with the agency by 2014. She eventually became the executive assistant to a tough-talking former Marine and Iraq vet named Mark Livingston, who was the TSA’s deputy administrator for intelligence and analysis.
Livingston had a reputation as a workaholic and taskmaster. Bermudez didn’t mind. She liked taskmasters. It made her feel like she was back in fatigues.
But going to work became uncomfortable for Bermudez. A colleague told her that a high-ranking official, Christopher Coffey, made sexually demeaning remarks about her and other women who worked for Livingston. Coffey allegedly said Bermudez and the others were doing “women’s work,” according to a complaint filed by Bermudez. He called them the “harem,” according to the complaint, and said they were having “affairs” and “trysts” with Livingston. Coffey did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Bermudez reported the remarks to Eric Sarandrea, an acting deputy administrator, according to her complaint. After that conversation, Bermudez says, the male bosses began steps to allegedly retaliate against her, culminating with her firing months later.
She says she confided to Sarandrea that she’d been a victim of sexual assault in Iraq, and that she had “zero tolerance for this behavior.” She expected the higher-ups to take her seriously. Instead, she says, “I was treated as if I did something wrong by coming forth with the truth.” Sarandrea did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Bermudez was unnerved, because she feared the inquiry into her complaint would be controlled by a high-ranking TSA executive she accuses of harassing her: Joseph Salvator. Salvator is a burly former Marine with a big personality. In a photo from an internal message board, Salvator can be seen giving a noogie — a roughhouse move that involves grinding knuckles into someone’s head — to a fellow employee.
In a deposition transcript obtained by The Washington Post, Salvator acknowledged settling with the agency in a matter involving alleged “inappropriate conduct” with a female subordinate. He’s also been the subject of a complaint by a female employee who alleged that he’d made her uncomfortable by knocking on her hotel room door in the wee hours of the morning. Rhoades, the TSA official who testified on Capitol Hill, has provided information to congressional investigators that appears to document Salvator receiving a $9,000 bonus despite Bermudez’s complaints and the other issues.
Bermudez says her problems with Salvator date to the beginning of her tenure as a full-time TSA employee. One morning, she walked into the office of her boss, Livingston, to deliver some paperwork, as was her daily practice. Salvator, who was involved with an employee morale survey, was there. According to interviews with Bermudez and Livingston, Salvator leaned forward in his chair and stared at her “from head to toe in a sexually suggestive manner, and then asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ”
“It was very inappropriate,” Livingston says in an interview. “He was trying to look down her shirt. He was sucking on his teeth, making it obvious he was making a point of checking her out. There was no doubt what was going on.”
Livingston says it was clear that Salvator expected Bermudez to complain. Later that day, Livingston says, Salvator came to him and said, it’s “our word against her if she files a complaint,” according to Livingston, who later sued the TSA, alleging that he was demoted because he had refused to tolerate mistreatment of female employees.
Livingston says he rebuffed Salvator: If asked about the incident, he would tell the truth. In his federal suit, Livingston says that Salvator told him that he couldn’t work with him if he was going to be a “Boy Scout.”
Livingston says Bermudez was singled out by Salvator because of her looks. “I think she was more attractive than most,” he says. “He wasn’t doing that to the ugly girls.”
In early October 2014, Livingston was demoted. Bermudez had lost her most important ally. The next month, she says, she attended a town-hall-style meeting. She expected a discussion about the workplace environment. Instead, she heard an announcement about a promotion for Salvator — the man she says had harassed her.
She was appalled. None of the employees were asking questions, she says. She raised her hand.
“Will Mr. Livingston be afforded the same opportunity, such as yourself, to address the workforce?”
She was told no. He didn’t work there anymore.
The next day, Bermudez looked at her phone and saw a text message as she was about to get out of her car to go to work: Sarandrea, the official to whom she had reported the allegedly offensive remarks, was telling her she’d been put on administrative leave. She was flummoxed. There was no explanation.
She called Sarandrea and asked why. She says he told her: “Alyssa, it’s simple. Go home.”
Her leave extended into the new year. When she returned, her days were numbered. On April 30, 2015 — five days before the end of her one-year probationary period, she was fired, leaving her as a single, unemployed mother. Her bosses told her that she’d had too many unscheduled absences — an assertion she denies — and wasn’t a “team player.” Her termination letter also says she was “confrontational, disrespectful and intimidating,” and chided her for saying that the problems she was having with co-workers “were not her fault.” The letter cited a passage from the agency’s code of conduct that instructs employees to exercise “courtesy and tact” in dealing with workers and supervisors.
But Arcia, her friend from the Army, describes Bermudez as just the opposite. “Her leadership style was this: She took care of everyone. Behind every strong character is a fragile person. She’s so compassionate.”
Bermudez decided that she wouldn’t go quietly. She’d already filed an EEOC complaint. But as the case dragged on, she became frustrated. She had signs and fliers printed. She built a website, nojusticetsa.org . In June, more than a year since she’d been let go, she screwed up her courage. She put on her heels and drove down to the corner of 12th and Hayes.
She ran out of fliers in a matter of hours.
“Our headquarters is in shock. No one’s ever taken that approach to stand up to them,” Rhoades, the TSA whistleblower, says.
Bermudez has a formal manner. She calls men “sir” when they stop to ask her what she’s doing. Most people just walk past with quizzical looks on their faces. Those who do stop sometimes wonder aloud about, of all things, the way she dresses.
“The first thing that struck me, after reading her sign and getting an overall picture of the situation, was how she was dressed,” a passerby muses in a video by a freelance journalist that is posted on Bermudez’s website. “In a nude dress, with sparkles, very thin heels. The hair is awesomely bouncy with curls. And I’m thinking, If there’s a message to tell, you’re actually speaking for the accusation in support of the accuser, less of yourself.”
Bermudez has heard it before. Her whole life. She wants to talk about what she’s thinking. The world wants to talk about how she looks. She says she has the right to dress how she pleases.
One recent afternoon, a woman who used to work at the TSA stopped to talk to Bermudez. Like Bermudez, she was a military veteran, and she’d heard the snickers in the office.
“It’s just like a frat house,” Dayna Ginger says. “That is the way they carry themselves. That is the way they act. It’s sickening.”
“I know,” Bermudez says.