It was body language that tipped Maj. Herman Fitzgerald to the fact that Aberdeen Proving Ground had another sex problem on its hands.
A female private had been one of the liveliest speakers at a routine gripe session for soldiers, one of a number of reforms instituted after a sex scandal erupted in late 1996 at an Army training school on the Northern Maryland installation. But when Fitzgerald came to the critical question--whether anyone knew of improper behavior by drill instructors--she slumped and averted her gaze.
Fitzgerald wrapped up the session, addressing all the troops but looking directly at the private: "If you think there's something questionable going on, I will wait around and you can talk to me off-line."
Afterward, the blushing soldier approached the major and the story spilled out. The resulting investigation confirmed that a drill sergeant had propositioned female soldiers and on at least one occasion maneuvered to be alone with a trainee. At a closed nonjudicial hearing in March, the former drill instructor was reduced in rank and fined. The Army is taking steps to discharge him from the service.
"He definitely had improper relationships," said Fitzgerald, a battalion executive officer. "We could never prove sex. But just being isolated one-on-one was enough."
The incident, which has not been previously disclosed, stunned the leadership at the base, which has spent the last three years determined to prevent "another Aberdeen."
"At first, the attitude was, 'This can't possibly happen,' " said Lt. Col. Tracy Ellis, commander of the drill sergeant's unit, the 16th Ordnance Battalion. "It was one of disbelief. Was someone making this up?"
But officers and soldiers say Aberdeen's handling of the incident shows that reforms are working. "We identified it very, very early rather than waiting until one victim turned into multiple victims," Ellis said.
"It was just as improper back in '95 or '96 as in '99 or 2000," he added. "Back then, it may have been dealt with, but not at the same level. Maybe a letter of reprimand, a don't-let-it-happen-again, rather than removing him as a drill sergeant and taking a stripe from him."
Back then, investigations revealed that drill sergeants at Aberdeen, operating in a vacuum, had abused positions of power to force trainees to have sex. Ultimately, a dozen drill instructors were charged with sex crimes, with four going to prison and the eight others discharged or punished administratively. Letters of reprimand were issued to Aberdeen's commanding general and three other senior officers.
The mushrooming scandal soon encompassed other installations, but before it was over Aberdeen had entered the lexicon as a symbol of shame for the Army.
Despite the recent incident, commanders say Aberdeen has put the scandal in the past. "Don't ever forget it happened, but get over it," said Col. Hugh Hudson, commander of the 61st Ordnance Brigade, which oversees training at the base.
Aberdeen, established in World War I as a weapons-testing center and set on 70,000 acres along the Chesapeake Bay east of Baltimore, is home to the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and School. Each year, about 7,500 troops, many of them young and fresh out of basic training, come for eight to 25 weeks of further schooling in their specialties.
The Army has made both large and small changes at the school. Many addressed the lack of oversight that officials believe was at the root of the problem. "The key thing is leadership has to be out and about," Hudson said. "That's how you keep Aberdeen from happening again."
A second officer has been added to each training company, the unit directly responsible for the welfare of soldiers. Chaplains have been assigned to each of the two battalions, a position that existed in the past but had been cut before the scandal for budgetary reasons.
Drill-instructor candidates now undergo extensive background checks for criminal and family problems, and those sent to Aberdeen go through lengthy training on how to interact with soldiers.
"Before they get any bad habits formed, the can- and can't-do's are emphasized," said 1st Sgt. Michael Coolidge, a veteran drill instructor who was at Aberdeen when the scandal unfolded. "It doesn't leave room for interpretations, like in the past. What the command has done is minimize the gray area and maximize the black and white area."
Female soldiers live in the same barracks as males but on separate floors. After the scandal, some officials pushed to build separate barracks, but they were deemed too expensive. Now doors into the barracks have alarms, though windows do not.
During the night, noncommissioned officers are posted at the entries to barracks. "Before, we had privates guarding privates," said Coolidge. "Now we have disinterested adults. The wild parties don't get a chance to form, the wild orgies don't get a chance to form."
Soldiers are given lectures on how to behave with the opposite sex. "What we brief is just plain abstinence," Coolidge said. "You're not going to be here long enough for anything meaningful to develop. Enjoy each other's company but stay the hell away from each other."
Coolidge acknowledges that such admonitions go only so far. "We're not keeping them from having sexual encounters. We're keeping them from having unwanted sexual encounters," he said.
The type of gripe session that detected the drill sergeant's propositions is considered a key tool in uncovering problems. Called mid-course sensing sessions, they are held without drill instructors present. Soldiers are promised anonymity and given free rein to gripe about anything to the senior commanders running the session. "They tell us about a lot of stuff--some of it serious, most of it not," Hudson said.