For members of the Casper-based Troopers Drum & Bugle Corps, summer is hardly a vacation. During training, 150 members aged 14 to 22 rehearse for 12 hours a day, on their feet from morning to night. They sleep on hard gym floors, take water breaks on the run and get an average of one day off per month. They don’t eat lunch until their section is perfectly lined up by twos.
That’s if they make it onto the corps — which is decided over several monthly training camps, between which corps hopefuls have to complete video assignments and track their diet and exercise.
These sort of militaristic rituals, paired with constant reminders about how grateful members should be for their spot on the corps, foster a culture of negligence that came to light last month when several former members went public with allegations, leading to the resignation of former corps director Kristy Jackson.
The Troopers and other corps under the Drum Corps International umbrella are now left to reckon with the allegations brought against them on a deeper level, beyond personnel. Their biggest resource in that effort may be the very people who are speaking out.
“I think from here on out, there’s a new level and a new sense of accountability that we as alumni of the Corps are unified in making sure that these experiences don’t happen again,” said former Troopers color guard member Vanessa Connell.
After the summer of 2020, the first summer in years without a Troopers tour, Ian Calhoun said he started to hear from friends he’d made at the corps who were interested in reporting some of their experiences to the advocacy group MAASIN (Marching Arts Access, Safety & Inclusion Network). As a member of MAASIN’s whistleblowing committee, Calhoun helped compile six reports and publicized them in January.
The whistleblowers say they went public after receiving a feeble response from the Troopers’ legal team. The Troopers initially denied wrongdoing, but later issued a statement apologizing for its defensive posture after facing a social media backlash. The group said it was taking steps to address the issues raised by past members, and has subsequently hired a new interim director.
It took a summer without performances, said Connell, for people to step back and realize that what they thought was tough love was actually systemic negligence.
“In my opinion, it’s impossible to march drum corps and not be broken in some way when you come out, because it’s a very rigorous physical and mental activity,” said Calhoun, a former baritone. “I don’t know a single person who marched drum corps and didn’t have complaints.”
Calhoun marched in 2016 and 2017 before leaving the corps in July of his second year in the midst of mental and physical illness, compounded by the rigors of tour. After a great experience his first year, Calhoun said he was looking forward to coming back in 2017, even as some changes in his personal life took a toll on his mental health.
But instead, he encountered a “disorganized” administrative team that seemed to be improvising on the job. Calhoun said, careful not to sound arrogant, that he was a solid corps member. As one of the only returning baritones, he was offered the section head spot by Jackson but turned it down — “I thought I didn’t deserve it.”
The rehearsal and performance grind wore him down, and he got little help from Jackson — a former nurse — aside from recommendations to drink coconut water and sit out a few reps. In a fast-paced competitive environment like the Troopers, Calhoun said his mental illness problems soon led to physical injuries.
“You need complete concentration on everything you do because if you don’t, you could get someone else hurt or you can hurt yourself,” Calhoun said. “If you forget to do a step-off, someone’s going to collide into you with a 20-pound tuba. At 192 beats per minute.”
Calhoun ended up pulling a hamstring, but wasn’t sent to a clinic for treatment. He watched as several other members suffered avoidable injuries from being overworked with little rest. A tuba player lost feeling in their right hand, he said, and wasn’t treated until the next day. Exercise was often used as punishment for messing up. At one point, a staff member called members of his section “worthless” to their faces, because they couldn’t march without passing out from untended injuries.
“I just felt like, ‘Well, you’re right. I believe you,” Calhoun said, “‘I am worthless. I am not a Trooper, I’m just a sack of meat, just sitting on the ground being worthless.’”
After roughly a month of trying to leave, Calhoun said he finally did it in July, cutting his touring season short. The decision to leave wasn’t easy, especially since the messaging within the organization encourages members to deal with the hardships or be seen as weak.
“I get they try to model it like the military, and in the military, you’re only as strong as your weakest link,” Calhoun said. “But this isn’t the military. This is art. This is the performing arts, you don’t need to be like this.”
The Troopers aren’t the only prestigious drum corps hit with allegations in recent years. In a high-profile case that came to light in 2018, a former director of the Allentown Cadets was accused of sexual misconduct — ranging from verbal harassment to rape — by 12 women, several of them former corps members. George Hopkins, who also ran the youth arts education nonprofit that operates the Cadets program, pleaded no contest to the charges in 2020 and is now serving two years of probation.
The investigation into Hopkins’ conduct found he had little oversight from the Cadets’ board, giving him the freedom to throw things when angry in rehearsals, refer to women as “little girls,” and send inappropriate sexual emails on the organization’s server.
Abusers like Hopkins benefit from a culture of exclusivity and competition that’s common in drum corps. But, as Connell says, the problem is much deeper than a couple of creeps.
“The negligence comes from a lot of places,” Connell said. “It comes from the higher-ups, it comes from the admin, it comes from the board of directors, it comes from the staff, the caption staff, the people that are in charge of putting on the show. It comes from a lot of different places.”
She marched from 2015 to 2017, around the same time as Calhoun. In her last season, she remembers a staffer being “forced to resign” after he was found to be sleeping with a member. But even after he was let go, Connell said he was still allowed around corps members — who knew what had happened and had reported him to the administration — because he was the organization’s connection to the housing site where they were staying.
Connell said she never had any problems with Jackson herself, but was hurt indirectly watching her close friends being neglected or silenced. She’s four years removed from the corps now, and married. Her husband, based on everything he’s heard about drum corps from Connell, says he wouldn’t let any of their children march.
“There are so many other things that I’ve witnessed as a marching member, but they’re not my stories to tell,” Connell said. “And that’s the sad part, those people that truly went through something hard, something life-altering and traumatic, are scared to talk about it.”
Photos: The Troopers perform in Casper