An Air Guard colonel was allowed to quietly retire while his unit was investigated for sexual misconduct
“They were like, ‘rape her!’ and people started laughing."
A colonel in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard will retire despite the unit he commanded being investigated for sexual harassment claims that were revealed last summer in a sweeping article by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Col. William Griffin, who had commanded the 111th Attack Wing since December 2017, completed his last drill weekend on Sunday, March 7, and is now on terminal leave in advance of his planned retirement, the deputy public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania National Guard, Brad Rhen, told Task & Purpose. Col. Deane Thomey, of the Arkansas National Guard, is replacing Griffin as head of the unit.
The former chief prosecutor of the Air Force, Don Christensen, explained that in the active-duty Air Force, airmen typically have a hold placed on them that prevents them from retiring or completing a permanent change of station if they or their command is being investigated. The rules are different in the National Guard, he said, where leaders under investigation have been allowed to retire. However, just because Griffin is being allowed to retire doesn’t mean he’s off the hook entirely, Rhen explained.
“Per Air Force regulation, a member who has retired may still be subject to action as an outcome of an adverse finding of an investigation,” Rhen said. He declined to comment on the status of the investigation since it remains ongoing.
Eight current and former employees at the 111th Attack Wing’s base at the Horsham Air Guard station told the Inquirer they blamed Griffin for fostering a male chauvinist fighter jock culture that never got out of the 1980s.
“If you went back to the 70s and 80s, they just never evolved from that,” said Marianne Bustin, the sexual assault response coordinator who blew the whistle on the 111th Attack Wing after being fired from her position in June. Bustin herself served more than 20 years in the Navy and had previously handled sexual assault cases for the Coast Guard in nearby Cape May.
“They were young then,” in the 1980s, Bustin told Task & Purpose. “The thing is, do you grow and mature and see that the world is changing and change with it or do you decide to stay put?”
Bustin and her seven former colleagues told the Inquirer that Griffin fostered a frat-boy culture where rape jokes were tolerated, pictures of naked women were featured on beer steins at the base bar, and one pilot’s call sign was a slur for male ejaculation inside a woman. One particularly egregious example of the sexist culture at Horsham occurred during a training session in 2018, according to the Inquirer, when Bustin asked airmen at Horsham what they would do if they saw someone drugging a woman’s drink.
“They were like, ‘rape her!’ and people started laughing,” a technical sergeant who was at the training session told the Inquirer. Another person yelled out, “Give her more drugs,” said the airman, who asked to remain anonymous because she still works there.
The Inquirer article and Griffin’s retirement come at an awkward time for the National Guard and the Air Force writ large, which is trying to demonstrate that it is taking sexual assault and harassment seriously by investigating allegations and punishing those found guilty.
“[S]exual violence is widespread and impacts everyone,” the Air Force wrote on its Facebook page on April 5 to mark the start of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. “Every person has the ability to help expand sexual assault prevention efforts and ensure the next generation fosters attitudes that promote healthy relationships, equality and respect.”
In posts like these, the Air Force talks the talk, but it did not walk the walk in several high-profile cases. For example, the service retained Master Sgt. Jeremy Zier, who was convicted of abusive sexual contact and dereliction of duty in August. Also last year, Airman 1st Class Sarah Figueroa resorted to posting on Instagram about the male airman who was stalking and harassing her because her superiors at Misawa Air Base were doing nothing about it, she said.
The problem of sexual harassment and the lack of punishment for those who perpetrate it may be even more difficult to fix in the Air National Guard. Last month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Capital Times published a joint exposé about how women across the National Guard face retaliation and inaction after reporting sexual assault and harassment. That’s owed partly to the convoluted structure of the Guard, said Dwight Stirling, an attorney in the California National Guard who prosecutes sexual assault cases within the force and teaches law at the University of Southern California.
“The governing rules,” Stirling said, “can be adjusted to fit the circumstances” and have created a “culture resistant to change and uncomfortable with accountability.”
The number of reported sexual assaults nationwide in the Guard shot from 173 in 2009 to 607 in 2019, a more than threefold increase, the Journal Sentinel/Cap Times found. But Guard officials have no idea how many of those allegations are substantiated, how often soldiers are court-martialed and punished, or how often cases are referred to civilian police. And the agency which oversees state Guard units, the National Guard Bureau, does not have authority under the U.S. Constitution to regulate those units, the Journal Sentinel/Cap Times reported.
Those and many other problems came to light in 2019, when a Cap Times investigation showed just how thoroughly the Wisconsin National Guard bungled its sexual assault investigations. The report and a probe by the National Guard Bureau led to the resignation of the state’s Guard leader, adjutant general Donald Dunbar. The National Guard Bureau found that the Wisconsin Guard had “numerous deficiencies,” including having sexual assault response coordinators investigate allegations themselves, which represents a conflict of interest.
Similar issues with investigating sexual assault allegations persist across the military, explained Christensen, the former chief prosecutor of the Air Force and the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for sexual assault victims.
“One of the problems with the way all the services deal with sexual harassment is that they’re not typically investigated by independent investigators,” he said. “In the Air Force it’s not the Office of Special Investigations, it’s a command-directed investigation or the Inspector General or Equal Employment Opportunity. But those are not criminal investigative agencies. With the command-directed investigations, it’s just somebody who has nothing else to do that week.”
On top of those problems is the underlying flaw that military commanders have authority over the investigation of sexual harassment complaints and they have the power to decide whether charges against a service member proceed to a court-martial. This conflict of interest allows many cases of sexual assault and harassment to go unpunished.
Of course, it’s one thing to talk about these issues at a bird’s-eye level. It’s quite another to be stuck in the middle of them. That’s where Bustin found herself when she worked at the 111th Attack Wing. It all started with a lieutenant colonel at the base whose last name was Commins and who went by the call sign “Sider,” Bustin said. Put the two words together and you get a reference to ejaculating inside a woman. It’s not a good call sign for a field grade officer living in the 21st century to have, but Bustin found that the high-ranking officers at Horsham went to great lengths to protect it.
“The thing that started this all was when I brought up the call sign,” she told Task & Purpose. “Basically after I told them that I was offended and other people were offended, they continued to use it on base in front of me, which is sexual harassment.”
It only got worse. Bustin said base leadership started spreading rumors that she had stolen computer equipment and eavesdropped on the base chaplain. Bustin volunteered to take a lie detector test to refute those accusations, but was denied, she told the Inquirer. Overall, base leadership seemed to think that she and her program were foisted upon the unit and had nothing good to offer them. Eventually, Griffin fired Bustin and revoked her credentials, which means she can’t work in SARP anymore. Even with Griffin retiring and the 111th Attack Wing under investigation, Bustin is having a difficult time appealing to have her credentials restored.
“They’ve really done immense damage to Marianne and her career by going this route,” said Debra D’Agostino, a lawyer representing Bustin in the appeals process. “She was trying to point out harassment, trying to do her job, and that clearly was not welcome.”
Besides Bustin, seven other current and former employees at Horsham spoke with the Inquirer, supporting her claims against the unit. But even after the article was published and two Pennsylvania congresswomen, Reps. Madeleine Dean (D) and Chrissy Houlahan (D), a former Air Force officer herself, urged their state national guard to look into the issue, base leadership continued to deny Bustin’s claims and smear her behind closed doors, she said. Even Brig. Gen. Michael Regan, Jr., the deputy adjutant general for the Pennsylvania National Guard and the commander of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard were involved in the smear, she said.
Shortly after the Inquirer article was published, Regan went down to Horsham to tell the troops that “I had numerous investigations on me and my claims were all unsubstantiated … and that I was a disgruntled employee,” Bustin said. “Those aren’t his exact words, but in a nutshell. And then Col. Griffin told them the same thing.”
With all the allegations flying around, the National Guard Bureau brought in an outsider to conduct the investigation into Horsham. Maj. Gen. Christopher Walker, who was then assistant adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, began his investigation in November, expecting it to only take two weeks, Bustin said he told her. But he ended up staying until the end of January.
“Once he started, he just uncovered all these things, people coming out of the woodwork,” she said. “I will give accolades to the general because he was going to look for the truth as opposed to another cover-up.”
However, it’s now April and the investigation still has not been revealed to the public or to the congresswomen who requested it.
“To the best of Representative Houlahan’s and Dean’s knowledge, Maj. Gen. Walker’s investigation was completed and a report [was] given to the National Guard Bureau in early February,” their offices told Task & Purpose in a joint statement.
According to Houlahan and Dean, Maj. Gen. Mark Schindler, the acting adjutant general for the Pennsylvania National Guard, has been debriefed on the investigation, and the National Guard Bureau has the report for legal review. It will then be delivered back to Schindler, after which point Houlahan and Dean hope to see it, they said.
Brad Rhen, the deputy public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania National Guard, said the investigation is still ongoing, and he declined to comment on what stages were left in the process. When asked what they thought of Col. Griffin retiring before the investigation was released, Houlahan and Dean cautioned to await the results of the investigation before reaching a judgment.
“Reps. Houlahan and Dean believe deeply in due process,” their offices said. “They can assume nothing other than a fair investigation. Until this time, they understand the allegations against Col. Griffin and others, albeit numerous, are just that, allegations.”
Still, the congresswomen said, “Transparency and accountability are essential for rebuilding morale and provide the foundation for a healthy military culture, especially when allegations of misconduct are brought forward.”
Bustin is also hoping for that transparency.
“I feel like this whole year has been a year of awareness, equality, and inclusion, but I feel like the Pennsylvania Air National Guard was not going to do that,” she said. “It’s like they don’t have to follow the rules, or what’s changing. They just decided on their own that they’re not doing that.”
Featured image: Col. William Griffin of the 111th Attack Wing talks to the Chief of Employer Outreach Headquarters for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Tom Bullock before the ESGR Statement of Support signing by the Comcast Corp. in Philadelphia, June 14, 2016. The ESGR is a Department of Defense program established in 1972 to promote cooperation and understanding between Guard and reserve military members and their civilian employers. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond)