Pfc. Barry Winchell enjoyed being a soldier. He studied military manuals, relished the physical training. He was so accurate at firing a .50-caliber machine gun that he was named best in his company, and someday, he vowed, he would be one of the best helicopter pilots in the Army.

But Winchell, 21, also had a secret that was becoming known among the other soldiers in his unit: He was gay.

That realization may have cost the young soldier his life, gay rights groups believe.

During the early-morning hours of July 5, Winchell was brutally beaten with a baseball bat in his barracks here at one of the nation's largest Army bases, allegedly by another soldier in his unit while his own roommate encouraged the attack. The next day, Winchell, his face swollen beyond recognition, died at a civilian hospital.

Although Army officials have not disclosed a motive for the attack -- Winchell had gotten the best of the soldier in a fight a few days before the killing -- local and national gay rights groups contend there is mounting evidence that Winchell was the victim of a hate crime. If true, they said, this would be the first known case of a soldier being killed at a U.S. military base because of his sexual orientation in the five years since a new federal policy was adopted toward gays in the military.

In the era of "Don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" -- the law passed by Congress that took effect in 1994 and allows gay service members to serve as long as their sexual orientation is not discovered -- the Winchell case illustrates the deep-seated prejudices that continue to plague gays in the military. It also has placed the Army and Fort Campbell, home of the celebrated 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, in an uncomfortable spotlight.

Officials at Fort Campbell, which sprawls across the Kentucky-Tennessee border and has nearly 24,000 military personnel, have had little comment about the slaying. Maj. Pamela Hart, a spokeswoman for the base, said the probe is ongoing, with investigators "looking into all rumors and reports."

But during the last six months of his life, Winchell apparently was taunted frequently by fellow soldiers and superiors who had learned of his homosexuality, according to service members who testified this week at a court hearing and his friends. Lawyers and potential witnesses in the case are under a gag order forbidding them to speak to reporters, but a picture began to emerge nonetheless of an environment where a macho image is still highly valued and where a slur for a male homosexual was used freely as an insult. Alcohol in excessive amounts also apparently played a large role in the tragedy.

"Pretty much everybody in the company called him derogatory names," said Sgt. Michael Kleifgen, Winchell's section leader, in sworn testimony today. "Basically, they called him a `faggot' and stuff like that. I would say on a daily basis. . . . A lot of times, he was walking around, down in the dumps."

Pvt. Calvin N. Glover, of Sulphur, Okla., has been charged with premeditated murder in Winchell's slaying. This week's Article 32 hearing, comparable to a grand jury hearing in civilian court but open to the public, was held to determine whether enough evidence exists to court-martial Glover.

A second soldier, Spec. Justin R. Fisher, 25, of Lincoln, Neb., was later charged with being a principal to premeditated murder and acting as an accessory after the fact, among other charges. Fisher was Winchell's roommate in Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry regiment.

Several soldiers testified this week that Glover and Fisher were heavy drinkers, perhaps alcoholics. Pfc. Arthur Hoffman said that Glover, in particular, who at 18 cannot drink legally, became unpleasant and "aggressive" when he had been drinking.

Winchell, a native of Kansas City, Mo., was described by friends as a quiet young man with a masculine demeanor and down-to-earth attitudes. Although he had dated women exclusively in the past, he confided to friends that he had long questioned his sexuality and had been curious about gay life. His mother and stepfather, Patricia and Wally Kutteles, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that they were stunned to learn only after his death that he was gay.

Rumors about Winchell began to circulate widely through his platoon some six months ago after Fisher informed Sgt. Kleifgen that he had seen a soldier, whom he did not identify, at the Connection, a nightclub 60 miles away in Nashville that has a large gay clientele. Kleifgen told investigators today that he and a staff sergeant immediately went through a list of their soldiers and "asked every Pfc. in the company where they were that weekend."

"We figured out it was Winchell. I asked Winchell if he was gay. He said no," Kleifgen said, as gay rights activists in the audience gasped at the apparent flouting of the "don't ask, don't tell" law.

At first lauded as an advancement in relations between gays and the military, the law instead has received mixed reviews as many gay rights groups say that hostilities have only increased since its adoption. In this case, gay rights groups fear, soldiers who come forward with information could be subjecting themselves to questions about their own sexuality.

Incidents of gay harassment have increased every year since 1994, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington-based group that assists gays in the military. Last year alone, reported incidents increased 120 percent over 1997, according to an annual report released by the group.

Although much of the compiled evidence that a hate crime occurred in the Winchell case has been "anecdotal," according to Clarence Patton of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, "our antenna always goes up when someone known to be gay or lesbian is the victim of a violent crime."

"In hate crimes," he said, "there are certain indicators -- an element of overkill. . . . I do not believe this was an ordinary fight. That does not ring true."

Gay rights advocates say they want the military to more vigorously investigate soldiers harassed because of sexual orientation. They say doing so can prevent it from escalating to physical violence.

Since March, Winchell had been involved in a relationship with a performer at the Connection, a self-described preoperative transsexual named Cal "Calpernia" Addams, who attended this week's hearings dressed as a woman.

"When I heard what had happened, I thought, `Oh God, they've killed him because he was dating me,' " said Addams, a former Navy medic who served in the Persian Gulf War.

Hostilities in Winchell's unit apparently began to reach a peak on the evening of July 3 when he and Glover, who had been drinking, got into a fistfight, which Winchell won handily. Hoffman said that Glover had been bragging about his exploits when he was challenged by a disbelieving Winchell.

"He [Glover] was trying to make himself sound like a bad [guy]," Hoffman said. "The stories were pretty out there. . . . Winchell kicked Glover's [butt]. It was a long time coming."

Later, Glover may have been teased by other soldiers about his defeat, said Kathi Westcott, a staff lawyer with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Several soldiers reported to the group, she said, that "Glover was taunted basically for getting his [butt] kicked by a [gay man]."

Chief Warrant Officer Alfred Brown, a special agent for Fort Campbell's Criminal Investigation Division, testified that soldiers told him that Glover had vowed to "get even, kill him."

The next day, July 4, alcohol was flowing freely in the barracks, as many of the soldiers in the company emptied a keg of beer. Winchell, Glover and Fisher were drinking heavily, other soldiers reported. Several said they last saw Fisher and Winchell at about 2 a.m. on July 5, sitting at a picnic table outside the barracks.

By 3 a.m., the fire alarm in the barracks was clanging and men were piling out of their rooms, stunned to learn that Winchell was gravely injured. Fisher raced into the room shared by Pfc. Jonathon Joyce and Pfc. Nikita Sanarov, yelling that "Winchell's dying."

The two men said they saw a blood-splattered Winchell lying unresponsive in a second-floor hallway. Sanarov, who ran outside to get his car at Fisher's request, said he first saw Glover running from Winchell's barracks toward his own barracks. A few minutes later, Sanarov said he saw Glover sprinting toward a trash bin with what appeared to be an armful of clothing.

Investigators later found Glover in his room, along with a bloodstained shirt and blood smears on the door.

After Glover's arrest, Pfc. Ryan Futch, who guarded the soldier, said he overheard Glover and another prisoner exchanging epithets against blacks and homosexuals. Futch said Glover told him that he had beaten Winchell with a bat.

If Glover is court-martialed and found guilty, he will face life in prison.

In death, it seems, Pfc. Barry Winchell's secret was finally and fully exposed. At a memorial service in Nashville last month, Cal Addams spoke about what "a kind, calm gentleman" Winchell had been. Behind him, four people in civilian dress held aloft an American flag -- while four others held the rainbow banner, a symbol of the gay rights movement.