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At base, sex was 'the game' Court-martial reveals shared code words, secrets at Aberdeen

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The sayings were common on Army training posts across the nation.

Promising young soldiers were said to be "locked in tight."

And almost every morning during call-and-response drills came the sergeant's cry: "Company, are you in the game?" "Yes, drill sergeant," came the reply.

But at Aberdeen Proving Ground those sayings became code for sexual conquest and shared secrets, a perversion of Army terms that symbolizes a corrupted chain of command.

Now, as the Army prosecutes Staff Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson on 19 counts of rape, Aberdeen officers have banned the phrases -- illustrating the skittishness on a base that has become ground zero in a military-wide search for illegal sex in the ranks.

For more than a year, concealing alleged crimes with a common language, a network of drill sergeants used practiced methods to select female recruits for sex, tested their willingness with code words, and shared the women's names, according to court testimony, interviews and sworn statements obtained by The Sun.

The sergeants sleeping with trainees were "in the game"; willing female soldiers were "locked in real tight."

The shorthand was so common that drill sergeants would say the words in front of new trainees and look for a reaction -- possibly an invitation.

One sergeant, who learned the lingo at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, reportedly bragged to a colleague that he'd had sex with more than 60 privates.

"I think the drill sergeants had some racketeering going on," said William Killian, who retired in December as first sergeant of Alpha Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion.

"They kept it from the brass. But the leadership also failed to keep an eye on what was going on."

Now some members of Congress are asking how top Aberdeen officers could have failed to know about sexual misconduct, which allegedly began in January 1995, that was common knowledge among many of the post's 2,100 trainees.

"I'm just concerned with the whole command climate there," said Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican who is part of a House task force examining sexual harassment in the military.

"Was Aberdeen an aberration or not? Was there a cultural or climate problem?"

Simpson's court-martial has offered a window onto the biggest sexual misconduct case in Army history.

Simpson, 32, is accused of raping six women -- he has admitted having sex with five of them -- and faces 39 other charges.

The picture emerging is of rampant sex -- some consensual, some forcible -- and a broken chain of command that prevented complaints from reaching Aberdeen leadership.

Fifty-six female trainees once posted at Aberdeen are involved in the case that has led to charges against 12 higher-ranking men.

Female soldiers saw sex as a way to advance -- "sleeping with drill sergeants for stripes," according to Simpson's defense.

Much of the sex took place in drill sergeants' offices.

A nearby motel and "the bay," a secluded waterfront spot on the post, also were choice spots for drinking, smoking and sex between soldiers, female soldiers said in interviews.

"I thought the Army was really messed up " said one Aberdeen trainee who left the Army, disillusioned.

"It was sex, sex, sex."

The chain of command

Understanding the sex scandal requires understanding a central element of military life: the chain of command.

Aberdeen's Ordnance Center and School is organized into companies of about 300 students.

Each company has six drill sergeants -- the first line of supervision -- and two senior drill sergeants.

Above them is a single first sergeant and above that a commanding officer, which is a captain's billet.

But at Aberdeen that chain apparently came apart in several cases -- as self-contained cells of corruption prevented rumors about misconduct from rising.

In August, for example, a trainee followed the command chain and told Capt. Derrick Robertson, once Simpson's commanding officer, that the drill sergeant had raped her.

Robertson later had sex with the trainee; he is serving a four-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to the crime last month.

Another alleged rape victim testified that Simpson and his supervisor, Sgt. 1st Class Tony Cross, kept a list of women they slept with.

Simpson also ordered a private to Cross' office after hours, according to testimony.

Yet another alleged victim said she waited two weeks to report her rape to Cross, who told her he wanted to "write up" a complaint against Simpson.

The reason for the delay, she said, was her sexual relationship with Staff Sgt. Ronald Moffett, another drill instructor charged in the case.

"[Simpson] said if I told anyone they wouldn't believe me because of that fact he knew about Drill Sergeant Moffett," the 22-year-old testified.

Days later Cross had consensual sex with the woman, according to testimony; he now faces 17 charges involving four trainees.

He also allegedly recruited for Simpson, once asking a female private at a parade: "Do you know Drill Sergeant Simpson likes you?"

In all, five of six training companies in Aberdeen's 61st Ordnance Brigade have had at least one drill sergeant or commanding officer implicated in the scandal.

Officers notice trouble

The first hint of the scandal came in July 1996. Maj. Gen. Robert D. Shadley, who had arrived as commanding officer a year earlier, and Col. Dennis M. Webb, the recently arrived No. 2 officer, noticed an increase in sexual misconduct complaints while reviewing criminal incident reports.

"It made them sit down and say, 'Something's going on here,' " said Lt. Col. Gabriel Riesco, Shadley's chief of staff.

The "subtle" rise was the best indicator of sex in the ranks.

At most Army posts, an increase in the number of women reporting to sick bay or going absent without leave is a warning signal.

But those numbers fluctuate widely at training posts such as Aberdeen, which has complete trainee turnover roughly every two to three months.

Informal investigation

Shadley ordered an informal investigation, which turned up problems.

But the first complaints from female soldiers were about consensual sex, not rape.

A private having a sexual relationship with Simpson came

forward after he assigned her duty she didn't want to do, according to an Army official.

The Army Criminal Investigative Command took over.

Female recruits said that within days of arriving at Aberdeen, they heard rumors of which sergeants were "in the game."

Simpson "used to say all the time 'I get mine,' " a 22-year-old female soldier testified last week.

"That was his favorite saying."

Recruits from small, Southern towns were prime targets, according to interviews.

Streetwise, urban women were often judged off limits, sometimes only after a rebuffed pass.

The men bragged to colleagues and even to female privates, telling them "I've had that" when pointing out a woman with whom they'd slept.

Why didn't they complain?

Simpson's lawyers have argued that female trainees could have complained about sexual misconduct during bi-weekly "sensing sessions," group forums conducted by female drill sergeants.

The defense has suggested that Simpson's accusers came forward only to spare themselves punishment for their own misconduct.

But an Army psychiatrist testified that a corrupted chain of command could discourage women from reporting sex crimes -- out of fear or a sense of futility.

"If you are in the military, you can't just leave," said Maj. Elsbeth Ritchie, who works at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"Or if you do leave, you can get in trouble."

Similarly, those "in the game" protected themselves, while other sergeants who knew about misconduct refused to report colleagues for fear of career damage or ostracism.

Sergeant alleges approach

In a statement to investigators in September, Staff Sgt. William C. Howard said several drill sergeants in the 16th Ordnance Battalion tried to recruit him to be "in the game."

Those men -- Staff Sgt. Vernell Robinson Jr., Staff Sgt. Marvin C. Kelley and Staff Sgt. Wayne Gamble -- have all been charged in the case.

Gamble, charged with crimes involving 14 women, bragged about having had sex with more than 60 female privates -- and never being investigated -- according to Howard's sworn statement.

Thomas C. Morrow, Gamble's civilian attorney, said he hasn't seen the statement.

"We've got a long way to go to connect that to Sergeant Gamble," Morrow said.

But Howard, who was cleared of sexual misconduct, said his unwillingness to get involved led the other soldiers to stop talking to him.

"I didn't want to come forward with what I knew because I was scared that I would somehow be too involved," Howard said in his statement.

"I didn't know if I was part of the problem or part of the solution."

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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