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

"Don't you wish our lives were like VCRs and we could fast forward through the crummy stuff..."

So began a letter Don wrote to his friend, Aaron (not their real names), in Dallas in early 1996, shortly after their parents withdrew them from the Marine Military Academy. But the "stuff" the boys endured during the three months they were there went far beyond crummy.

Aaron was a bright, articulate, opinionated boy of 13, a tae kwon do champion who had aspirations of going to the Citadel some day. His mother still has a photograph of him from the Dallas Times Herald when he attended space camp in Houston when he was 10--a gift from his mother for his excellent report card.

He begged his mother to send him to MMA, but after his first month there, she thought something was wrong. So did his pastor, Blake Barbre, who thought Aaron seemed as though he was hurting when he came home for a weekend in September. A few weeks later his mother, Kay Wayne, went down to visit and was aghast to find bruises all over Aaron's body. He tried to be stoic and told his mother they were nothing.

But the same weekend, his mother befriended a woman from Houston whose grandson Don spent his visit with her curled up in a fetal position in a hotel room, crying and begging to come home. He told her that if she didn't withdraw him, he might be coming home in a body bag.

Weeks passed before the boys' stories came out. Kay Wayne turned to her pastor for help, thinking that Aaron might open up to him. Barbre called Aaron, and he finally opened up, telling him that he had been beaten up. "They did gross things to him, tying him with a belt and hitting him with hangers," recalls Barbre. "They slammed his head against the wall and choked him until he passed out. This wasn't military school; this was warfare. It was not typical boy roughhousing. This was abusive stuff. They were using their rank to make his life terrible, for no reason. I told his mother that if she didn't take him out, I would go down there and get him myself."

Wayne brought her son home and immediately took him to a doctor. The boy was suffering from a concussion and multiple contusions, according to the doctor's report. In a statement Aaron wrote for an attorney, he also describes how one of the boys used to make him stand at attention while he wrapped his arms around him, rubbing his penis up and down "doggy style."

Kay Wayne filed charges against two of the boys for misdemeanor assault. One of the boys pleaded no contest and is now serving in the Marines. The other boy got probation. Wayne has fought for two years to make people realize what really goes on down at the academy. She turned to Barry Zale for help, but she says he turned a deaf ear. People at the academy did not fully believe Aaron's story because he is a big kid and capable of defending himself. But his pastor says he chose not to fight back because he feared he would just get hurt worse.

Don also was roughed up and had a knife held to his throat and ear on two separate occasions. But the breaking point for him came after two boys, angry that he had entered their room without knocking, decided to teach him a lesson. They jumped him from behind, and one of the boys unzipped his pants and tried to force his penis into Don's mouth. The other boy told Don he came back to his room a few nights later and put his penis in his mouth while he slept.

Don gave a statement to the police, but they said they would not file charges unless he came in and filled out a sworn affidavit, which he did not do until some time later. He also reported the incident to MMA, and they let him go home for a two-week leave because he was so distraught. Police say they forwarded the affidavit to the district attorney, but the grandmother says no charges have been filed.

Both boys have been seeing psychologists since they left the academy. Barbre and Kay Wayne say that Aaron has become, in Barbre's words, "a totally different kid." Once outgoing and happy, he is sullen, at times suicidal, and keeps to himself. He refuses to attend the church youth group, which he used to frequent three times a week.

In addition to counseling, Barbre meets with Aaron once a week. "I am trying to help him get beyond this," says Barbre. "But he is making slow progress. This is going to affect him the rest of his life."

The Marine Military Academy has been in a tailspin ever since Cadet Cortez had his throat slashed in the early morning hours of October 6.

They have tried to reassure parents that their children are safe. They have added two more guards to patrol the campus after midnight, put locks on the cadets' room doors, and plan to put TV monitors in the barracks by the fall.

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