The bullet holes of World War II still pock the stone face of the old SS headquarters here that has long since been known as the U.S. Army's Merrell Barracks.

Inside, marble swastikas inlaid in the floor of the post chapel linger as the sole indelible reminder of a distant past.

Just beyond the barracks, American children play football and soccer on fields trampled out among the weeds in the massive stadium where Hitler reviewed his troops. The symbols of triumph painted by Gen. George Patton [WORDS ILLEGIBLE]Army in 1945 are barely visible [WORDS ILLEGIBLE]the stadium pillars.

[WORDS ILLEGIBLE] years ago, the GIs in Merrell [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] were part of what The Washington Post, in a series of articles, [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] as "an army in anguish." [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] an army torn apart by [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] from within by racial [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] crime, drugs and decaying barracks life, and from outside by a disillusioned society that seemed no longer to have a place for it.

The problem was everywhere U.S. soldiers were stationed. But it was perhaps most graphic here, in a historic old barracks where the collective neglect caused by so much focus on a war in Asia was easiest to see.

"We were hanging on by our eyelids in 1971," recalls Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, son of the famous World War II commander. The young Patton was with the 4th Armored Division here at the time, and today is deputy commander of the Army's 7th Corps in Stuttgart.

"It was the most unpleasant assignment I've ever had. There were three threats on my life and 49 bomb threats in Nuremberg in 16 months," he said.

But today's army, according to Patton and scores of other officers and experienced enlisted men interviewed in a dozen locations in West Germany in recent weeks, is vastly changed.

"The change, for the better, has been dramatic," says Col. Robert E. Wagner, who heads the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment headquarters at Merrell Barracks.

"All the indications tell us," says Brig. Gen. William H. Fitts, deputy personnel chief in Europe, "that we don't have a bunch of soldiers in anguish today. In fact, Fitts and many others suggest today's army may well be remarkably free of the special kinds of anguish that almost shattered it just a few years ago.

The reasons lie in American society outside the Army, which in general has calmed down in the aftermath of Vietnam - and the Army reflects that calming down - and in the kind of people coming into the Army under the all-volunteer system that replaced the draft at the beginning of 1974.

The 7th Army in Europe today - about 200,000 troops - is by no means trouble-free despite the changes. Rather, a whole new set of problems is emerging that, in a more traditional way, also challenges its future.

Hovering above all questions on the Army's future is whether the all-volunteer Army is working; whether the Army is getting the kind of recruits it needs to handle today's complex weaponry and provide the spark of battlefield leadership that for two centuries has largely been provided by draftees.

What has the lack of a draft done to the Army reserve and National Guard forces counted on to reinforce Europe in any battle that lasts longer than two weeks? And could the Army get the 200,000 civilian dependents here out of harm's way if that battle does come?

The questions have to find their answers here because the spearhead of today's U.S. Army is men and women of the 7th Army in Central Europe. That army, in many different forms, has been here for almost 35 years since it came to a victorious halt in Central Germany at the end of World War II.

Today, it is east in perhaps its most important role because Central Europe is, in effect, the only traditional front line left for the United States. The agony of Vietnam is past. Withdrawal from South Korea is under way. Virtually the entire U.S. Army is now aimed at and trained for Europe.

Across the eastern border. Soviet led Warsax Pact forces enjoy a considerable edge in manpower and firepower. The Army would be the first tested if a new battle came to pass.

It strengths and weakness, its morale and ingenuity, are of vital importance.

The all-volunteer army has proved a mixed blessing in this respect. It is no longer getting college-trained recruits and very few highly skilled enlistees. This has hurt the service, despite official protestations to the contrary. But this Army also is getting far better draft-resistant troublemakers, and that has helped.

The absent-without-leave (AWOL) rate is down more than 50 percent, says Fitts. The court-martial rate in Europe also has been cut in half in the last three years. "I've had one AWOL in four years out of 90 guys in my outfits," says 1st Armored Division Sgt. Charles Smith, a 24-year veteran.

Barracks crime, rampant just a few years ago, is no longer a big problem, say soldiers on several bases.

"There have been a few incidents of stealing in the barracks," says a private from Mannheim, "but the officers and NCO's (non-commissioned officers) are pretty good about cracking down on that fast."

"In contrast to the Vietnam era, when the 7th Army in Europe had virtually been stripped of all experienced NCO's by the demands of Southeast Asia, "the senior NCO's are back here now and back running the Army," says Sgt. Johnnie Preston of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a 20-year veteran. That also means more NCO's living in the barracks to ensure discipline, he says.

The barracks themselves - almost all 40-year-old relics that once housed Hitler's Whermacht and Luftwaffe - the army and air force also have been improved and modernized, in many areas.

Barracks spaces for roughly 80,000 GIs have been renovated during the last four to five years, paid for mostly by a $500 million West Germany program and a smaller U.S. project. The barracks covered by this effort have new plumbing, heating and electrical systems. A walk through several shows them to be comfortable and respectfully.

"Five years ago, all these windows were covered by cardboard in the winter," Lt. Col. John Landry said, looking out his window toward the modernized barracks of his armored squadron in Amberg. "In 1971," adds a sergeant "the whole place was falling down, so if there were nine holes in the wall already there was no reason why a soldier shouldn't knock a tenth one when he got bored or mad."

"But 15,000 or 20,000 GIs still are in substandard barracks by any measure today, says Col. Charles McNeil of the Engineer Corps.

With the all-volunteer Army has come a rise in the proportion of black soldiers. In spite of this, or perhaps in some part because of it, race conflict seems to be less obvious in the barracks.

"Racial tensions today are as low as I've ever seen them in the Army since it was integrated in 1951," says Lt. Gen. David E. Ott, commander of the 7th Corps, the largest single fighting force in the Army today.

"The potential, however, is there. We do have an occasional flare-up . . . like a barroom brawl . . . but these are very limited and we've developed programs to prevent this and keep each other aware. I suspect we'll continue to have this as long as it exists in American society. But we in the Army are really doing very well. I shudder when I say that, because something could happen tomorrow. But we have not had any racial incident of any significance for the two years I've been here," Ott said.

Ott's three-star view is, in general, shared by most GIs these days. Some feel the racial problem is merely in the closet, and some still bristle under what they feel is discrimination.

But the most widespread view is that racial tensions have cooled considerably.

"Race relations have improved a lot," says Spec, 4 Ron Thomas, a black enlisted man at Amberg. "The younger guys coming in today have a better understanding. And, you know you're going to be working with a guy for two or three years, so you try and get along."

I mean whites, got the message now," says black Sgt. Norman Taft.

Drugs - especially heroin and hashish - remain a lingering Army problem. Usage is on the rise again after a dip in recent years. The degree of seriousness is a matter of considerable argument. It is hard to pinpoint because the most widely used soft drug in Europe - hashish - is not detectable in urine analysis drug abuse with heroin.

The drug problem is being fed in part, many officers and enlisted men, say, by an official Army policy that in recent years has sent young soldiers directly overseas for three-year tours immediately following advanced training, after only six months in the Army.

"It's just too damn long for a single guy. You get lonely and bored and homesick and you can't take a bus home or talk to anybody or speak the language in town. You really need more time in the U.S. to get used to the Army [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] Pvt. John Munnerlyn in Kalserslautern.

The situation has been aggravated here by the plunge in value of the dollar here by 30 percent in the last two years, keeping many of the roughly 80,000-90,000 GIs here in the 18-20-year-old bracket in barracks much more than they would like, or than the recruitment posters suggested.

"The black market" one soldier says, "is the only way to make it," a reference to selling PX items.

Hardest hit are about 5,000 of the lowest-ranking GIs who brought their families to Europe on their own. They get no government living allowances and must pay their rent in West Germany marks.

About 75 percent of the Army, however, lives in barracks or government housing, eats in the mess halls and is protected from the mark by the cutrate post exchange, commissionary and gasoline station system.

Army pay also has risen in recent years. A corporal with three years' service who is single, lives in the barracks and gets free meals earns about $520 monthly before taxes. If he's married with a child and is eligible for government quarters, he earns $715. If the same man lives off-base, government aid pushes his monthly salary to $1,041.

Still, the GI who needs to break the monotony of barracks life has to spend $2 for a beer or a Big Mac in town, so soldiers try their best to avoid the German economy.