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Rape jokes, vindictive culture in ‘old boys club’ at Horsham’s Air National Guard Station

Twenty-year Navy veteran Marianne Bustin says she was harassed and retaliated against for trying to change the sexist culture at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard station in Horsham. (Monica Herndon/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Marianne Bustin thought she’d found her dream job.

It was the spring of 2016 and the Pennsylvania Air National Guard announced that it was hiring a sexual assault response coordinator at its Horsham base.

The base is near Bustin’s home in Jenkintown, and she was more than qualified. She’d previously served in the Navy for more than 20 years and had recently been commended for her work handling sexual assault cases for the Coast Guard in Cape May.

“I thought it would be a great place to work,” Bustin said of the new job, a federally mandated position.

But Bustin, 56, a mother of two who grew up in Philadelphia’s Kensington section, said she soon discovered that working with the commanders in the 111th Attack Wing is like going back to an era where “Top Gun”-style male chauvinism is encouraged, sexual harassment and discrimination is rampant, and #MeToo never happened.

Lt. Col. Oliver Barfield, who recently left the Horsham base, wrote a scathing congressional memo criticizing the base’s commander, Col. William Griffin. (Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond/U.S. Air National Guard/TNS)

Few women on the air base have spoken out — until now.

In interviews with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bustin and others describe a frat-boy atmosphere where rape jokes are tolerated, beer steins in the base’s bar feature images of naked women, and a high-ranking pilot’s “call sign” was a reference to the act of a man ejaculating inside a woman.

When Bustin started, a colonel on the base nicknamed her “the Maytag repairman,” reflecting his belief that her job was unnecessary on his base, she said. Officers ignored her or refused to participate in mandatory programs designed to address sexual misconduct.

“They made a mockery of me and my program,” Bustin said, “from the day I arrived.”

In June, Bustin was terminated, following what she says was a two-year campaign of retaliation by Air Guard leaders who rejected her attempts to professionalize the organization and clean up a toxic, fighter-pilot culture on the Horsham base. Her credentials were also revoked, limiting her ability to work in her field in the private sector or on another base.

Interviews with seven other current and former employees support Bustin’s claims — and more. But those that speak out publicly say they could face career-ending retribution.

Bustin and others place blame on the base’s top officer, Col. William Griffin, who this month was accused of fostering a “vindictive culture of unprofessional retaliation,” according to a congressional memo written by a fellow commander on the base.

Bustin has retained an attorney in Washington and is appealing her termination to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. She says she’s blowing the whistle on what she calls intolerable working conditions for women on the base.

“There is an abuse of power and control there,” Bustin said. “It’s a few of these leaders against everyone else. You either comply and you’re in, or you don’t and you’re out. They’ll come after you and close ranks and you’re done.”

Col. Bill Griffin, 111th Attack Wing commander, has come under fire from a fellow commander and women at the Horsham Air Guard Station. (Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond/U.S. Air National Guard/TNS)

The allegations made by Bustin and other women on the Horsham base can be found throughout the armed forces, where sexual assault and harassment remains widespread. Reports of sexual assault in the military continued to increase over the past year, according to a Pentagon report released in April.

The problem drew fresh scrutiny this summer following the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood in Texas. Her remains were discovered last month. Authorities say a male soldier had beaten her to death with a hammer then disposed of her body. Guillen had told her family that she was being sexually harassed but felt she couldn’t report it without facing retribution. Under the hashtag #IamVanessaGuillen, other service members have shared stories of sexual misconduct and rape.

On National Guard bases, changing the male-dominated culture can be particularly difficult because, unlike active-duty bases, guardsmen often climb the ranks and work alongside each other for years or decades, rather than moving from one base to another.

“I think the Guard is even worse than active duty,” said Ellen Haring, a retired Army colonel and research fellow at the Service Women’s Action Network. “They become friends and they often network and help each other with jobs. Woman who get crosswise with them are in trouble.”

Sexual misconduct scandals have recently been reported within the National Guard in Florida, Wisconsin, Vermont and Minnesota.

Haring said Bustin’s case, however, is rare because it involves alleged retaliation not against a victim of sexual assault, but against a woman tasked by the federal government with responding to their cases.

Formerly the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove, the Horsham Air Guard Station is home to the 111th Attack Wing, the control center for the heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper drones that conduct battlefield surveillance and can deliver air strikes thousands of miles away.

Horror stories abound among the women who work there: Vulgar sexual harassment. Discrimination on a near-daily basis. Suicidal thoughts.

Most say they cannot be identified by name criticizing their superiors, concerned that it could harm their military careers, even off the base.

“We were never going to be successful there,” one who worked at the base told The Inquirer, referring to her female colleagues. Two of them, she said, told her they had considered taking their own lives in recent months.

A former victim advocate on the base told The Inquirer that when she began working there she was advised by older enlisted women to “never wear leggings or tight fitting clothing” and to “leave and slip away” anytime guardsmen started drinking. Still, she said she faced harassment on “so many different occasions.”

“I wasn’t able to do my job because Marianne wasn’t able to do her job, because of Colonel Griffin,” she said. “They were very dismissive. Their attitude about the sexual assault program was, ‘We don’t need it because it doesn’t happen here.’”

Griffin, the wing commander, did not respond to requests for comment from The Inquirer over a period of three weeks.

The former victim advocate and other women said the low assault numbers on the base are likely attributable to women believing that they cannot file a report out of fear that it would be handled internally and result in retaliation against the victim, not punishment for the perpetrator.

“It was like the Wild West,” the former victim advocate said, recalling one incident in which a woman told her of a clear case of sexual assault but did not report it because “her life would have been ruined.”

Rachel Mitchell, a technical sergeant at Horsham, recalled a holiday party in 2017 when she introduced her boyfriend to a lieutenant colonel whose last name is Commins. He said to refer to him by his call sign, “Sider.”

Mitchell’s boyfriend was confused, she said, thinking it was a reference to cider. Then, she said, a major chimed in to explain that it referred to a sex act when the two words were combined.

“My boyfriend was absolutely disgusted,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, 44, a former intelligence analyst and White House translator, said she brought up the problem of sexually explicit pilot call signs to her supervisors, but was rebuffed.

“It literally was downhill since I joined,” said Mitchell, a former victim advocate in the Navy. “It’s just never-ending nonsense and bulls— on that base. Nonstop retaliation and making the women out to be these Jezebels if they speak up.”

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April 2017, a guardsman defaced a poster highlighting the prevalence of rape in the U.S. and drew a big smiley face on it. A senior officer on the base then hung it in his office. (He’d later tell an investigator that was so to determine if he could recognize the handwriting.)

When the #MeToo movement swept across the country later in 2017, unit commanders on the base took the attitude that sexual harassment and assault “doesn’t happen here,” Mitchell said.

In 2018, Bustin was holding a Green Dot training session aimed at preventing violence, sexual assault and suicide. Bustin asked the airmen what they would do if they saw someone drugging a woman’s unattended drink.

“They were like, ‘Rape her!’ and people started laughing,” said a technical sergeant who was at the training session. She asked to remain anonymous because she still works there. Another person yelled out, “Give her more drugs,” she said.

The men were not chastised by their supervisor, who she said later made comments that were dismissive of rape allegations.

“I wanted to punch him,” the sergeant said.

She said Bustin was good at her job, but was repeatedly sidelined by officers on the base, particularly Griffin: “When I first met Marianne, she was so excited to bring this program to the base. But I could see over the years how that faded. Everything she wanted to do, (Griffin) wasn’t on board with.”

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania National Guard in a statement to The Inquirer this week said, in part: “Effectively responding to reports of harassment and discrimination is critical to the health, morale and welfare of our Guard members and civilian employees, and it is essential to the National Guard’s readiness. The 111th Attack Wing’s leadership promotes ‘Zero Tolerance’ regarding sexual misconduct of any type.”

In addition to sexual harassment, women who’ve worked at the Horsham base say they’ve faced frequent gender discrimination. Going up the chain of command or to the National Guard’s inspector general typically provides no recourse, said one woman whose complaints were dismissed.

“I’ve been to other bases and it wasn’t like this,” said a former technical sergeant, who asked that her name not be printed because she is seeking another position in the military. “On our base, there is a very distinct good old boys network, and if you’re not in that club you got to get out.”

She said one of her friends on the base reported that she had been sexually assaulted years ago, before Griffin became the wing commander and before Bustin arrived. She said the friend then faced reprisal and ultimately moved across the country. The male perpetrator received minimal punishment, she said.

“They pretend we’re all family,” the sergeant said, “and that there’s nothing wrong.”

In Bustin’s case, when she went over Griffin’s head and continued to press the National Guard to comply with mandatory sexual assault prevention policies, she said leaders on the Horsham base orchestrated a retaliation campaign against her, focusing on a 2018 incident in which she was accused of eavesdropping on the base chaplain.

Bustin said that it was a misunderstanding and that she was simply checking to see if anyone was in the chaplain’s office because she needed help carrying heavy items from an event into her nearby office. Her supervisors took no action against her at the time.

It only resurfaced later, she said, once Griffin wanted her gone.

“They just went after her and latched on to this ridiculous incident from two years ago,” said Bustin’s attorney, Debra D’Agostino, who is handling her federal appeal. “It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Bustin said Griffin later moved her to a mostly empty building, then during the investigation into her alleged misconduct, used that fact against her, arguing that the troops did not know where she was located. The old eavesdropping charge stuck. She offered to take a lie-detector test and was denied.

She lost her certification to work as a sexual assault response coordinator and was terminated on June 5.

“I was retaliated against for trying to do my job well,” Bustin said.

She’s now waiting on her appeal decision from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. She said she recently received a call from the Department of Defense Inspector General’s Office and they are reviewing her case.

Haring, of the Service Women’s Action Network, said the U.S. military as a whole has largely failed to address sexual misconduct within its ranks, 15 years after the Defense Department created the sexual assault response coordinator position.

“Plenty of people still don’t trust the leadership in the system to file a report,” Haring said, adding that sexual harassment is a “continuum that builds to assault.”

“I think that there is an extreme good old boys club on Guard bases and in National Guard units,” she said.

Complaints about retaliation at the Horsham Air Guard Station have recently made their way to Congress.

In a memo obtained by The Inquirer, Lt. Col. Oliver Barfield, former commander of the base’s largest unit, wrote to U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa.: “Col. Griffin’s actions as the Wing Commander promote a vindictive culture of unprofessional retaliation against those who speak out where the ends always justify the means.”

Barfield’s memo, which is dated July 17, does not deal with sexual harassment. But he wrote that he personally faced retaliation from Griffin for filing a report with the inspector general about a technical issue, a unit’s organizational alignment.

“My sole intent (and professional obligation) is to document the retaliatory behavior from Col. Griffin that I personally experienced during my four years in command,” Barfield wrote to Houlahan, an Air Force veteran. “If I were to remain silent, I would be complicit … I also find the systemic lack of Senior Leader accountability within the Pennsylvania Air National Guard chain-of-command (and the Inspector General) disconcerting and worthy of inclusion.”

Barfield recently left the base and could not be reached for comment. Houlahan’s office on Tuesday did not have any comment on the memo.

“I have worn the uniform for over twenty-one years at seven other permanent duty stations and during four combat deployments,” Barfield wrote. “I have never experienced anything close to this.”


© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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