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

April 17, 1997|By Scott Wilson and Tom Bowman | Scott Wilson and Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

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?"

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