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For some people, one of the bewildering aspects of the modern condition is that all sorts of things no longer mean what they once did. A smile is not always just a smile; a pat on the back may be mistaken for more than encouragement. And at the center of the sexual harassment scandal sweeping Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground, members of the 143rd Ordnance Battalion--whose motto is "Professionals in Gear"--may want to consider changing their mascot from the acronymic PIG to a creature a bit less loaded with symbolism.

The deeper meaning was not lost on the Army, though, when it announced it was filing rape, assault and sexual harassment charges against three male officers responsible for training new recruits at Aberdeen, and investigating at least 17 others. The most far-reaching scandal to hit the armed forces since the Navy's 1991 Tailhook incident threatens to undermine the thing that many in the military hold sacred: the chain of command. It has also teased out an alarming number of similar allegations at other bases around the country. But hoping to avoid a repeat of Tailhook--in which no one was ever convicted after scores of women were assaulted by Navy aviators--the Army brass is moving quickly in this case to demonstrate "zero tolerance" and assure the public that they will do all they can to root out further wrongdoing throughout the armed forces.

Yet the Army may be unprepared for the extent of the damage it uncovers. A toll-free hotline set up at Aberdeen logged some 3,930 calls by the end of last week. Of this number, about 1 in 10 were crank calls, and some people were calling to report problems dating back to World War II. But other calls were considerably more urgent: 506 possible incidents of abuse, including 101 relating to Aberdeen, have been handed off to the Army Criminal Investigation Command for further study. Captain Paul Goodwin, a former company commander in the 143rd at Aberdeen, who has helped out answering the hotline, is devastated by what he has been hearing. "When there's a voice to go with the story--and when you hear how sincere they are--it just breaks your heart," he says.

Meanwhile, the military, eager to appear vigilant, disclosed a number of similar incidents at other bases. A drill sergeant at the Fort Leonard Wood training ground in Missouri pleaded guilty to charges of having consensual sex with three recruits and of trying to have sex with two other women, while two officers await court-martial and 10 other cases are pending there. An Air Force general revealed that over the past three years, eight male instructors have been disciplined for harassment at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. And the San Antonio Express-News reported that at a medic school at Fort Sam Houston, five sergeants were disciplined for fraternization and wild behavior on a February bus trip to Mexico.

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