The Few, the Proud, the Battered

At Harlingen's Marine Military Academy, the line between discipline and abuse is sometimes as thin as a knife's edge

Most of the cadets included in the suit have filled out sworn affidavits describing conditions at the school, which McColl has not made available to the academy. (Copies of the affidavits were provided to the Observer with the names blacked out.) These affidavits, coupled with interviews with the former cadets, offer a chilling glimpse of life at the Marine Military Academy.

One former cadet, who now attends Berkner High School in Richardson, recounts being made to do pushups on gravel laced with glass that made his fingers bleed. He says he was cursed frequently by cadet officers and drill instructors who called the boys "maggots" and "shit-for-brains." He witnessed weaker boys being hazed regularly but was punished when he came to their aid. He says that one time his roommate was awakened by three boys who put a powerful liniment called Atomic Bomb in his anus and sat on him until it burned.

Another, John Crumby of Dallas, who attended MMA in 1993, says seven cadets beat him in the head, stomach, and testicles with pillowcases stuffed with combination locks until he passed out. He suffered a broken nose and a hairline fracture of the jaw, and was in such pain he had to be carried to the infirmary, where he remained for two weeks. Another time, Crumby claims, a drill instructor caught him with a pack of cigarettes and made him eat the pack, washing it down with a glass of hot water. He then forced Crumby to do intense exercises--a punishment called physical training--until he vomited. Crumby joined the lawsuit recently, after his grandparents read about it in the newspaper.

The number of plaintiffs in the class-action suit has doubled since it was filed a month ago, and calls continue to come in almost daily to McColl's office from former cadets and their parents, who are interested in joining. Dallas attorney Mark Ticer says he is preparing to file another rash of lawsuits soon. He represents families from Dallas and Houston who allege their teenage sons were physically and sexually abused at MMA during fall 1995.

The Dallas youth Ticer represents was 13 when he attended MMA and maintains in a sworn affidavit that several older cadets beat him in his room on at least four occasions. One time they bound him with a webbed belt and whipped him with clothes hangers. One of the cadets choked him until he passed out and threatened to kill him if he "narced" on him. The boy's friend, a Houston native who was 14 years old at the time, told Harlingen police an older cadet tried to force his penis into the boy's mouth and make him drink a cup full of semen.

Kay Wayne, the mother of the Dallas boy, has been on a crusade for the last two years to expose MMA's darker side. Like many other parents, she was seduced by the school's spit-and-polish image, the seemingly clean-cut youths with their impeccable manners and crisp, handsome uniforms. She hoped sending her son there would put him on a fast track to a military academy, which had always been his dream.

A single mother, Wayne worked two jobs to afford the approximately $17,000 yearly tuition at the academy. And she is still making sacrifices, this time to afford the psychological counseling her son has needed since he returned home.

By its nature, military school is supposed to be tough. It is frequently a last resort for kids in need of a serious attitude adjustment. So it might be easy to discount the horror stories boys tell about MMA as trumped-up tales from kids who just couldn't cut it. But there is support for the contention that MMA is a troubled place. Last spring, the academy came dangerously close to losing its accreditation after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools took issue with its testing procedures and lack of a full-time certified guidance counselor. At least once in the last two years, the state director for the accrediting body has had to speak to MMA about a hazing incident.

People with intricate knowledge of the school's inner workings say its troubles stem from financial pressures placed on the academy from its recent building campaign, which led the school to aggressively increase enrollment while lowering admissions standards. The stress is compounded by the apparent callousness to cadets' complaints on the part of the administration.

If even a portion of what the cadets say is true, then dismissing the boys' stories may have exacerbated the problems and may be part of the reason life at the MMA spun so desperately out of control.

A former Air Force flight school hard by the Harlingen airport, the Marine Military Academy sits on 142 manicured acres dotted by palm trees. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the campus was eerily still, with most students inside their barracks studying for finals.

Everywhere around the school are visible reflections of the Marine Corps. On a field outside the gates, next to the academy gift shop and museum, with its books of Marine lore, battle photographs, and recruitment posters, sits the original plaster model of the famous Iwo Jima War Memorial--six Marines planting an American flag--from which the bronze statue in Arlington National Cemetery was cast.

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