Marianne Bustin said that for years she heard troubling accounts of sexual harassment and assaults on the Pennsylvania Air National Guard base in Horsham.
Scores of women — and men — related stories of airmen telling rape jokes and using off-color humor and language to intimidate Black and female colleagues. There were accounts of alcohol-fueled improprieties, hostile work environments, and worse, sexual violence.
It was Bustin’s job as the sexual assault response coordinator on the base to field such complaints and advance any apparent wrongdoings to leadership.
But Bustin, 58, said that in doing her job, she got on the wrong side of what she describes as a toxic male chauvinistic fighter-pilot culture at the base.
Two years ago, Bustin was terminated from her job and stripped of her professional credentials in what she says was retribution on the part of a “good ol’ boys” workplace. After she filed the allegations of a hostile workplace, Bustin said she was cited for an ethical violation. Bustin was reported by someone on the base as having been seen eavesdropping on a conversation with a chaplain.
“Of course it was false,” she said.
The loss of credentials means she is unable to work as a sexual victims response coordinator in the military or the private sector.
Bustin filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the Pennsylvania National Guard, and after a drawn-out period, won part of her legal battle: In January a judge from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board ruled that she had been denied due process. No ruling has been handed down on her separate claim that she was the victim of retaliation.
Two years out since her story first broke, Bustin has seen no resolution or closure to her case.
She has yet to be reinstated or compensated for lost wages and benefits. Furthermore, she is still awaiting the results of an investigation launched by the Pennsylvania National Guard into claims of a hostile work environment at Horsham.
“I fought for change for women,” said Bustin, a former Naval officer with 21 years of service. “When I went into the military in 1985 things were very different, but I saw progressive change over the years, very slowly. But when I got to the Guard, it felt like a setback to the day I set foot in the Navy. I felt like I fought for change for women and minorities but unfortunately the opportunity that the Pennsylvania Guard has to make change has not been embraced.”
Bustin and her lawyer said the Guard’s investigation has been completed, but the findings have yet to be released.
Brad Rhen, a public affairs officer with the Pennsylvania National Guard, said Bustin’s case before the Merit Systems Protection Board is ongoing, and that the agency is working with the administrative law judge and Bustin, through counsel, to seek resolution of the issues.
The internal investigation, Rhen added, continues to work its way from the command through Air Force inspectors general channels.
“The complainants will receive notice of the results in accordance with the applicable Air Force regulations,” Rhen said. “Since these matters are still ongoing, we prefer not to comment further.”
Bustin’s case was first detailed by The Philadelphia Inquirer two years ago. The newspaper report prompted the Pennsylvania National Guard to launch the in-house investigation into the allegations of a hostile work environment and the apparent lack of response from the top brass to the complaints.
That July 2020 Inquirer report prompted dozens of female National Guard members, as well as racial minorities at Horsham, to come forward with their own accounts of a work environment filled with sexual and racial harassment.
“People came out of the woodwork with their own allegations of retaliation and harassment. It opened up a can of worms. Women and minorities… there were some white males…..but mostly women and minorities, anybody who goes against the grain,” said Bustin, who is white. “You are either in or out.”
In addition to a sexually hostile work environment, some of the allegations that surfaced in the wake of Bustin’s lawsuit dealt with pregnancy discrimination, alcohol use on the job, and security clearances pulled as retribution for reporting wrongdoings.
Bustin was particularly shocked to learn of the pervasive use of sexually suggestive pilot call signs. Despite, for instance, the objections raised by women on the base to off-color call signs or codes, airmen persisted in using such sexually derogatory acronyms as one to convey “c-u-next-Tuesday”. Bustin said no one up the chain of command objected to their use.
Bustin took it up to her commander.
“I told him other people were offended and that we couldn’t continue to do that in this day and age,” she said. “But they continued to use it….They called me on the carpet for questioning its use. They came after me.”
One month after the Philadelphia Inquirer story published in 2020, Maj. Gen. Anthony Carrelli, then the head of the Pennsylvania National Guard, resigned. A few months later Col. William Griffin, then commander of Horsham who Bustin and other employees blamed for failed leadership on the base, also stepped down.
Media reports widely attributed Carrelli’s abrupt resignation to a stinging report of mismanagement and irregularities amid the COVID-19 oubreak at the Southeastern Veterans Center. At the time, 42 deaths from COVID-19 had been recorded at the veterans home.
Approximately eight high-ranking officers retired from the branch, which Bustin regards as abrupt and suspicious.
“Suddenly eight people who were named in the allegations were allowed to retire….while all of us were forced off the base, some are suffering mental health issues,” she said.
Cpt. Travis Mueller, a public affairs officer with the Pennsylvania National Guard, said Carrelli’s resignation and retirement had no correlation to the investigation at Horsham. As for Griffin, Mueller said, he had reached his mandatory separation date, which determined his departure from commissioned military service.
Bustin notes that both men are collecting retirement benefits, even as she is denied a paycheck.
“I haven’t gone back to work. I haven’t received a penny,” Bustin said.
In May, Military.com published a report looking at the rampant culture of sexual harassment and assault in the National Guard across the country.
In 2017, for example, male soldiers at Fort Pickett, Virginia, were found to have been looking through a window into the women’s showers. The male soldiers were not punished, according to the report, instead the women were instructed to cover the windows with trash bags. In other instances, a male soldier sent a female soldier photos of his genitals, and noncommissioned officers made comments about women’s bodies.
The women reported that the cases were largely ignored or mismanaged.
Bustin similarly claims that leadership at Horsham failed to take appropriate measures to respond to allegations of a hostile work environment, and in fact, sought retribution against her when she became a whistleblower.
“Marianne Bustin’s story is 100 percent accurate,” said Nancy Worthington, a former human resources representative at Horsham who was interviewed by investigators. “There are thousands — not an exaggeration — of victims at the hands of the people involved in this case. I have first-hand knowledge of what has happened and I personally witnessed this corruption from the year that it began…. I saw everything.”
Worthington, who worked at Horsham between 2006-2010, left the unit, she said, unable any longer to witness what she described as a corrosive and coercive work environment at the unit.
“This was the tactic they did to Marianne,” Worthington said. “They create rumors about a person, then feed it into the unit to get that person ostracized and forced them to leave. Then they deny the VA claims and prevent their security clearances from going through.”
Bustin’s case has garnered the attention of two Pennsylvania members of Congress. Gov. Tom Wolf has reportedly been apprised of the case.
In response to a query from PennLive, Wolf’s office said the matter is outside of the governor’s jurisdiction, and that it would be inappropriate for him to comment, given that the federal investigation is ongoing.
U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, whose district includes the base, has been monitoring the case since 2020 and has questioned members of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s top brass about the investigation and its findings.
Dean said she remains wholly dissatisfied with the response from the state military branch and the apparent lack of urgency on the case.
“It’s a shocking set of allegations,” Dean said. “The climate and the culture there, according to the allegations, have cost people their credentials, careers and passion for the work they are doing.”
U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a former Air Force officer and founder of the Servicewomen and Women Veterans Caucus, has also taken the top brass to task over Bustin’s case. Earlier this year, in a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Houlahan questioned Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, on the delay and asked for an update.
Hokanson told the congresswoman that he would reach out directly to Major General Mark Schindler, the Adjudant General for Pennsylvanians, to get the most current information to her immediately.
“Obviously, time is always of the essence,” he said at the hearing.
Dean characterized the initial investigation as “extremely flawed” and “botched,” including failure of investigators to interview leadership.
Bustin’s case, as a result, has dragged out, with a protracted legal review period that resulted in a re-opening of the investigation to address concerns.
Dean’s office has been allowed to review heavily redacted findings.
“Stunningly, the folks who were in charge of the base were never interviewed in the first investigation,” Dean said. “They were allowed to retire out without ever being questioned, which I find incredibly ill-informed. The second investigation takes place after they retire and they can’t reach them.”
According to Dean, of all the allegations included in the investigation, only one was found to be substantiated.
Bustin’s attorney, Debra D’Agostino, said she cannot confirm the claim about a single allegation being substantiated because neither she nor her client have seen the findings.
“It very much seems they were trying to keep the investigation closed,” D’Agostino said. “It’s a complete and inappropriate abuse of authority.”
D’Agostino, who specializes in federal cases, said legal reviews are par for the course in these cases and typically extend an investigation by a week or a month, but rarely by two years.
She said that beyond the initial allegations, investigators eventually looked into potential criminal allegations, but with the near black-out of the findings, D’Agostino said she has no way of knowing the status of the investigation.
“This entire thing became unwieldy,” D’Agostino said. “Everything about this is highly atypical. It’s very frustrating that they have been able to hide month after month instead of disclosing results so appropriate decisions can be made.”
Dean has appealed to Wolf to clear the path for the release of the findings. Wolf’s office was briefed on the finding in July, according to Dean.
D’Agostino said she has little confidence in the new leadership at Horsham to appropriately handle the case.
She blames the convoluted oversight system of the National Guard: members work under federal rules and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, even as they are governed by state regulations.
“It’s the fox watching the hen house,” D’Agostino said. “I feel in a sense they are in a bit of a catch 22… if they do the right thing, they are admitting wrongdoing and potential liability. If they fire the harasser, then that’s obviously evidence that they found the sexual harassment allegations to be credible and egregious. They are trapped in a defensive posture, which prevents them from doing the right thing.”
Dean said she intends to hold people accountable and to affect change in the way the Pennsylvania National Guard handles allegations of sexual assaults and harassment.
“We have to address this culture wherever it exists, if it’s the movies industry, the TV industry, journalism, and in our military,” Dean said. “It is essential that we take a look at inherent biases and misogynistic cultures. It’s absolutely essential.”