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

Glasgow respectfully declined Alfaro's offer. "...if I wasn't certain that my security wasn't superior to that which is performed by private security guards, I would close the school," Glasgow wrote.

Alfaro's son Hector was enrolled in MMA this fall. But after the Cortez slashing, Alfaro felt he had no choice but to remove him, as did the parents of 31 other cadets. "I think the issues boil down to the following," Alfaro wrote to Glasgow. "Either our school will become a reform school and the 'dumping grounds' for the trash of society or a smaller school that does not admit young men who are violent or drug dealers."

Alfaro still holds the school in high esteem, but he resents the attitude the administration has "that the Marines can take care of their own." He thinks the top brass has forgotten that the cadets are not Marines. "They are still," he says, "little boys."

With his sallow skin and dark, vacant eyes, John Vaughn--not his real name--has the look of a haunted young man. He and his parents have driven an hour to meet with a reporter in Houston to tell why they are suing the Marine Military Academy.

"I was one of the choir-boy cadets, and they turned me into a monster," says John Vaughn, 19. His tone is neither shrill nor harsh, but matter-of-fact. As he talks, his mother, who is gravely ill with lupus, cries softly. His father, a former Marine, shakes his head silently.

His mother has brought along a photo album that shows Vaughn carrying a sword in the Academy's birthday ball--an honor bestowed on only a handful of cadets. He was first in his eighth-grade class, the first eighth-grader to make corporal, and captain of the boxing team. He enrolled in the academy because he always loved the military. He invested his college money in the academy's tuition, hoping to get an appointment to one of the service academies.

He excelled during his four years at the academy, but at a price. He suffered through the grueling plebe system, where company leaders smeared human excrement on his cheeks and would backhand him in the groin while he stood at attention. His squad leader, who Vaughn claims was using steroids, once grabbed him by the throat and threw him against his locker. When something went wrong in his company--for instance, if something was stolen--the whole company would be punished.

"We would be crammed into the TV room for hours at a time and made to P.T. [physically train]--pushups, leg lifts, crunches--until we suffered muscle failure. The heat off our bodies made the temperature climb. When we could no longer lift our bodies off the floor, we were made to stand at attention, standing body to body like sardines. It was torture. There was continuing mind games and harassment until you were in the upper grades and had adapted to the MMA mindset, where you gave what you got."

Vaughn had four drill instructors in four years, each one with his own style of leadership, each one requiring he prove his worth to him all over again. As a high-ranking cadet leader, he was in charge of younger cadets, many of whom did not want to be there. He admits he often used force to make the unruly ones listen to his command. But by then, he says, he had lost his conscience.

"It didn't bother me to see pain," he says.
By Vaughn's junior year, he was beginning to unravel from stress and exhaustion. He ran 8 miles a day to train for boxing, and as a gunnery sergeant had to patrol the barracks at night to make sure the other cadets were studying and keeping in line. On top of it all, he was taking mostly honors and advanced placement college-level classes, which required him to study far into the night.

From the grueling schedule and sleep deprivation, Vaughn fell seriously ill near the end of his junior year. He had a high temperature and fever blisters in his mouth and down his throat. He couldn't eat for a week and lost 15 pounds. He says that he asked to go to the hospital, but that the medic, a former Navy corpsman, refused. He finally called home, and his parents flew him back to Houston, where he was hospitalized and treated with intravenous antibiotics for three days.

When he returned, he says, his drill instructor betrayed him. He believed the drill instructor cared about him, but he discovered he just didn't understand how much stress he was under. When he heard from another cadet that his DI thought he was lazy, Vaughn confronted him. When the DI confirmed he had said it, Vaughn was heartbroken. He shaved his head and refused to come out of his room for morning formation. He didn't talk to anyone for two weeks.

It was the final blow. "I just couldn't take it any more. I finally understood I was becoming a person eaten up by anger, a person of pure evilness. I could trust no one."

Vaughn has been out of MMA for two years. He has been in counseling for his violent moods, which swing from anger to depression. He says he feels like a failure for not graduating from the academy and like a survivor for having finally won back his heart and conscience.

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