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

The school sits at the juncture of Marine Drive and Iwo Jima Boulevard. On a placard at the school's entrance is the Marine Corps slogan semper fidelis--always faithful. The ROTC program is sponsored by the Marine Corps, and the uniforms the cadets wear--pressed green pants and khaki shirts and dress blues--are modified versions of those worn by Marines. Part of the school's creed proclaims that "I will wear my uniform proudly and in doing so, uphold the standards established by the United States Marine Corps."

The school's logo of an anchor, globe, and rope is almost identical to the Marine Corps' emblem--so much so that several years ago the corps requested the academy change it. The logo was changed--almost imperceptibly, a fact that so angered a longtime trustee, who requested anonymity, that he cited it as one of several deceptions on the school's part that made him quit the board in disgust, according to his affidavit.

The truth is that the academy is in no way officially affiliated with the Marine Corps--which is noted in tiny print in the academy's literature. But as the school's president, Maj. Gen. Harold G. Glasgow, noted a few years ago in a feature story in The Dallas Morning News, "If you take the name Marine out of our title, we will have a loss in the interest in the academy."

Indeed, many parents send their children to the school because they believe it is part of the Marine Corps. While only 20 percent of the approximately 500-member student body is interested in pursuing a military career, the school misrepresents how much pull it has with the country's collegiate military academies. In its brochure, MMA claims it "provides more students to the U.S. Naval Academy than any other source, except for the President. MMA can award six appointments per year, whereas a congressman can only award two."

In reality, the academy, like many other military prep schools, can only nominate candidates to compete for highly coveted appointments, according to the Naval Academy Foundation in Annapolis. Last year, the Marine Military Academy saw five or six of their students go on to attend the country's three military academies--the Naval Academy, West Point, and the U.S. Air Force Academy. In contrast, the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, which has twice MMA's enrollment, sent 120 students to the academies last year.

What is not an exaggeration, however, is the way the academy mirrors the Marines in its no-nonsense, rigorous approach to training and discipline. One of the school's advertisements shows a drill instructor in a Smokey Bear hat, nose-to-nose with a new recruit, whom he is chewing out. The caricature is not far from the mark.

"The drill instructors at MMA are former Marines who just can't get over it," says a former academy dean, a retired Marine himself who believes the military approach to training young boys is too harsh. "The time-honored techniques and traditions of the Marines work when you take 18- and 20-year-olds, send them to boot camp, and teach them how to kill, but not during the formative, delicate years of adolescence."

Life at the academy begins with a three-week plebe system, during which new cadets learn the numerous regulations contained in a 72-page handbook called The Right Guide. It starts the second they kiss their parents good-bye, meet their drill instructor, and get their uniforms.

"You're basically degraded verbally for three weeks with the only break being in the classroom," according to former cadet Rett Gray from Houston. "They have to beat you down to nothing. I remember hearing, 'It doesn't matter who you are at home, because here, you are a piece of shit. You're all equally worthless to me.'"

In recent interviews, Glasgow admits part of the plebe process consists of harshly tearing the plebes down, but says it is done for the purpose of rebuilding them into disciplined officers and gentlemen. And every cadet interviewed for this story, even those most disgruntled, still refers to his elders as "sir" and "ma'am."

They learn to march and drill with a rifle and by the end of the second day must memorize a dozen symbols of military rank. Plebes are forbidden to look anyone in the eye and must ask permission for everything, including beginning eating their meals. They must brace against the nearest wall and stand at attention for anyone with rank who passes by them. They have no privileges, must stay in on weekends, and cannot call home. They are allowed to write, but in recruiting sessions staff members warn parents not to open these letters. "There won't be anything good in it," Master Sgt. John McLaughlin told a group of Dallas parents a few years ago, according to a transcript of the meeting. "'Mom, I love you, get me out of here, I have died and went to hell!'"

Until recently, the plebe system at MMA was run by older students called handlers, who often abused their authority, putting plebes through punishing physical exercise that would cause them to collapse, then chastising them for collapsing. Gray, who attended MMA in 1994 and '95, says his handler took sadistic pleasure in making the plebes "do pushups on their knuckles on rocks because it would make them bleed, and he would say, 'You like to bleed. If you want to be a Marine, you gotta bleed.'"

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