The Few, the Proud, the Battered
At 3 a.m. on a humid night in early October, Gabriel Cortez's screams awoke his fellow cadets in the Bravo Company barracks at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen. Boys rushed into Cortez's darkened room to find the 18-year-old high school senior soaked in blood and lying in his lower bunk bed, his throat slit almost ear to ear. His 13-year-old roommate, who caught a glimpse of the attackers as they fled, lay motionless in his top bunk, afraid to move.
The cadet company commander raced downstairs to summon Drill Instructor Mike Pruitt--the only adult in charge of the 72 boys in the barracks. Pruitt dialed 911, and the police and an ambulance arrived within minutes. Cortez was taken to a local hospital, where it took 28 stitches to close the deep gash on the cadet's neck. A week passed before he felt well enough to return to classes at the school, which has a reputation for being among the most rigorous military academies in the country.
Within days, police arrested 17-year-old cadets Jeremy Jensen and Christopher Boze on charges of attempted murder. The pair were corps leaders with almost spotless records, a fact that made the slashing that much more inconceivable, and as the months have passed, no motive has emerged for the attack. Neither of the boys, who were roommates, has been indicted, although several cadets identified at least one of them as the person they saw fleeing the room the night of the attack, according to police. Charges were recently dropped against Jensen for lack of evidence. The cadet did, however, fail a lie-detector test administered by the Cameron County District Attorney's Office. Now Gabriel Cortez's stepfather, a California ophthalmologist, says he is worried that justice will not be done.
Except for the thick, leathery scar that encircles his neck, Cortez, a round-faced boy of medium build, with large dark eyes and cocoa-colored skin, has healed--at least outwardly. But the damage the attack has inflicted on the school's once-stellar reputation may be harder to repair.
The Marine Military Academy's top brass and staunch supporters--its board boasts high-profile and high-powered businessmen, including Hugh McColl Jr., chairman of NationsBank Corp., and Barry Zale, a scion of the Zale jewelry store family--tried to assure parents and the public that this was an isolated and anomalous incident. But in the months since the attack, an unsettling picture of the Marine Military Academy has begun to emerge.
In its promotional literature and its recruiting seminars, the academy, founded and run by former Marines, describes itself as a college preparatory school that strives to attract boys with "good character" and teach them to be leaders through a military regimen of strict rules and discipline. Hazing and instruction through intimidation are forbidden, as are drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, according to the school handbook.
But in reality, say former cadets and their parents, drugs, alcohol, and computer-generated pornography are rampant. They say the school more closely resembles a page out of Lord of the Flies than a high school version of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.
They say it is a place where older cadets (ages range from 12 to 20) frequently misuse their authority to savagely berate and beat younger cadets--sometimes with the permission of staff--and where younger cadets live in fear of retaliation if they report the misdeeds of their higher-ranking brethren. Inside the wrought-iron gates of the academy, say former drill sergeants, deans, and trustees, is a dangerous mix of too many cadets with serious emotional and behavioral problems and too little adult supervision and counseling. Drill instructors, who are on duty seven days a week, 24 hours a day, are expected to keep as many as 80 boys in line.
Parents claim the staff hides or minimizes the boys' accusations, telling them their sons are exaggerating in order to be taken home or that they deserved whatever beatings they got. Staff members have dismissed physical and sexual assaults as innocent roughhousing. "Boys will be boys, after all," parents repeatedly are told.
The Cortez slashing brought into sharp relief what many former cadets had been trying to tell people for years--that a climate of violence and depravity pervades the academy. For the last two years, Dallas criminal attorney Arch McColl had been investigating cadets' allegations of mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the school. In November, he filed a class-action lawsuit against MMA on behalf of 11 anonymous cadets, who claim they were subjected to varying degrees of hazing and abuse. The lawsuit also accuses the school of fraud and deception. The suit, filed in Brownsville, seeks a full refund of tuition and actual and punitive damages.
MMA officials refused to be interviewed by the Dallas Observer. In a news release the school issued shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the academy said, "Once specific allegations are made known to us through the appropriate legal process, we will be able to address each of them. Until more information is forthcoming, the academy will not respond, but stand [sic] ready to defend its excellent reputation of providing an environment conducive to learning and of building boys into men."
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.
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.'"
The plebes are now run by drill instructors. The plebe system is still grueling, and even drill instructors are known for punishing an entire squad for the sins of a single cadet. At the end of the plebe period, the plebes officially become cadets and are awarded a metal emblem to be worn on their caps. Many cadets are afraid to wear their pins, because upperclassmen are known to pound their hands on the pins--leaving bruises and red welts--in a brutal, forbidden tradition called tapping in.
Reveille is blown at 6 a.m., and the cadets are out the door in eight minutes, provided they've made their bed to perfection and pass inspection. They run a few miles before breakfast, then spend the rest of the day in school. The academic and military departments are run separately. Studying is mandatory from 7 p.m. to 9 or 9:30. p.m. Lights are out at 10 p.m. They are not allowed to sit on their beds all day, until it is time to go to sleep.
On paper, say parents, the school looks great, although it clearly is not for everybody. "And it would be great," says the grandmother of the Houston cadet who claims he was sexually abused, "if they ran the place like they say they do."
The Marine Military Academy has its share of success stories. These cadets are frequently asked to give testimonials at MMA recruiting sessions held around the state.
Parents hear from boys such as Cadet Clair Woertendyke, who left a Pleasant Grove middle school with a 0.83 grade-point average after eighth grade. After four years at MMA, where he starred on the school's winning football team, the Leathernecks, he pulled his grades up to a 3.0, according to a transcript of a recruiting session recorded by a parent several years ago.
But the cadets are careful not to sugarcoat their experiences for people who attend the recruiting sessions. At this particular session, Cadet Matthew Brigance, who was also from Dallas, warns the parents in the audience that the military school is not for everyone. "Parents who can't control their sons at home figure that they'll send them down here and let some 15- to 17-year-old cadet try and discipline them. That can make a situation better, or it can, in most kids, make it a lot worse. Because, I mean, if they're not going to listen to people that are closest to them and the ones that care about them more, they're not really going to respond to people that are total strangers that really could care less, aside from trying to get the job done."
Barry Zale is one of MMA's staunchest defenders. He believes the school has nothing to fear from the recent spate of lawsuits filed against it. A trustee of the academy for the last 10 years, Zale attended MMA for his senior year in the early '70s in order to get "a better education. I didn't have the skills and discipline I needed for college," says Zale, who had attended Dallas public schools.
Three years ago, he decided to send his 13-year-old son, Ben, there. He was a C student at St. Mark's School and suffered from low self-esteem. "He obviously needed something I wasn't giving him--self-discipline," Zale says. "I felt the experience at MMA would help him out. I am very, very proud to say I was right. I don't think kids are supposed to like MMA, but he's thanked me for sending him. He's carrying a 4.0 average or better, and he's a real mensch. He came home for Thanksgiving and was a real pleasure to be around. I really trust this kid, and I don't know many parents of 16-year-olds who can say that."
Zale insists that MMA is not a "barbaric place at all." Although he has read the affidavits in the class-action suit and finds them disturbing--"They make you want to cry," he says--he does not believe they are true. If the school were plagued with so many problems, he insists, it would not attract such high-caliber trustees. As examples, he cites Robert Lutz, chief operating officer of the Chrysler Corp., and Harlingen Mayor Bill Card, who served as commandant of cadets at the school.
Having spent so much time at the school over the years, Zale says, he would have known about the problems if they existed. But according to an affidavit of the former trustee who requested anonymity, the school has taken certain steps to block trustees' access to information.
"Another example which drove me away from the school was what I refer to as the 'cover-up' bylaw in the bylaws of the school," the trustee writes. "This was the bylaw that President Glasgow got the board to pass, which prohibited board members from talking to the staff or the faculty. This was further designed to keep the board in the dark in my opinion...The school has a way of hushing things up so that such news never becomes public."
In a school of 500 boys, there are going to be problems, Zale says. But when they are brought to the administration's attention, he insists, they are dealt with. A few years ago, when it received numerous complaints about the brutality of the plebe system, for instance, the school replaced the student plebe handlers with drill instructors. It also shortened the plebe system by several weeks--a source of frustration for the older cadets, who think the newcomers are getting off too easy.
But critics of the school insist that the student leaders are still given too much authority, which can be dangerous in a school where a culture of intimidation and brutality is so ingrained.
Take, for example, the story of Brandon Whiddon, a 14-year-old Houston boy who was severely beaten in the face by a football player last May. A school coach ordered the football player to discipline Whiddon, whose unforgivable crime was dribbling a basketball when he wasn't supposed to.
At the end of gym class, physical education coach Mike Fass ordered the class to put up the basketballs. Whiddon, an exemplary student with a penchant for being a class clown, dribbled his ball on the way. Angered, the coach told him to drop and give him 25 pushups, according to a statement Whiddon gave the Cameron County district attorney. The coach yelled to hurry up, and Whiddon wasn't sure he was talking to him or the class. When he asked for clarification, the coach picked him up by the back of his shirt and dragged him into the weight room. He instructed Jonathan Kyle Chapman, a 17-year-old football player who weighed close to 200 pounds, to "take care of him."
Chapman ordered Whiddon to do 25 push-ups. After 16, Chapman told him he wasn't doing them right and to start over. When the boy protested, Chapman took off his weight-lifting belt and slapped Whiddon across the back. At that point, the coach walked back in, and Chapman told him he was going to handle it. Chapman began pushing Whiddon into another room. Whiddon pushed back, and Chapman pummeled the boy, who stood a foot shorter than him, in the face and head as he cowered in the corner. In a statement Chapman wrote, he claimed he hit Whiddon in retaliation for hitting him first.
Whiddon reported the incident up the chain of command and was told to keep it quiet, that the school would handle it, he says. A few hours later, when Whiddon's drill instructor saw his face, he told him to call his grandmother Polly Hawkins. She called the police, who found Whiddon's injuries--a swollen face, bruises, and a concussion--serious enough to take him to the hospital. Hawkins flew down to Harlingen the next day. After talking to several academy staff--one of whom told her he didn't believe anything cadets tell him--she withdrew her grandson from the school.
The academy fired the coach immediately, but did not expel Chapman until months later, after he threatened a teacher.
"When I have to fear for my grandson' s life, something is wrong," says Hawkins. "I agree with a structured environment. The Marines look so handsome in their uniforms. You have a vision of disciplined young men with good values. But I sent him into a den of thieves and thugs."
Sadly, the characterization of the cadets as thugs and thieves may not be much of an exaggeration. In the last six years, people close to the academy began noticing an alarming trend. The school was accepting an increasing number of students with very troubling pasts. Some had severe emotional problems; others had criminal backgrounds.
Two new barracks opened in the early 1990s, increasing enrollment from 350 to more than 500 students, achieved in part by allowing eighth graders into the school for the first time. One former trustee believes that the once-stringent admission requirements eroded because the school was under financial pressure from an expansive building program the school undertook. Since the early 1990s, the school has erected or renovated a half-dozen new buildings, and a large student center is under construction.
The school has an image of being very selective about its enrollment. Harlingen Police Chief Jim Scheopner, who attends monthly community prayer breakfasts at the school, says that the school "only takes the best and the brightest, unlike other military schools." The fact is, the school admits almost everyone who applies, according to a 1994 report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the school's accrediting agency. At the time, the agency found the school in violation of several standards. When the school did not rectify the problems for three years, the agency placed it on probation this spring, then moved it up to "warned" status this fall after the school finally hired a full-time counselor and improved its testing procedures.
In a letter to a school benefactor concerned about what he saw as the diminishing quality of the cadet corps, Glasgow assured him that the quality of the present corps exceeds that of any class during the last 11 years. "There is not another private military academy in the United States that has tighter admission requirements than we have today."
Barry Zale claims that boys with serious problems and criminal histories are not candidates for MMA--"unless a parent is not being truthful," he says. "But once their background is found out, they're thrown out."
Then how do they explain Justin Waltz's presence at the academy? According to Teresa Waltz, Justin's stepmother, the boy was in serious trouble with the law in Huntsville when he was admitted to MMA for the fall 1996 class and attended through early fall 1997. Justin had been arrested on charges of burglarizing several houses and of aggravated assault on a child--facts MMA was aware of when his stepmother contacted them, she says. "They told me they would take him before he was convicted," says Waltz. "So we made a deal with the prosecutor that he wouldn't prosecute him if we sent him to MMA. MMA said they could straighten him out."
Justin Waltz was in constant trouble at MMA. He stole a phone credit card from another cadet, and he and his friends charged $2,000 worth of calls on it. He told his stepmother that older cadets beat him. This fall, the school let him withdraw after he badly beat another cadet. When Mrs. Waltz arrived to pick him up, Justin was gone.
"I found him myself with no help from them," she says. "It was a big waste of money. They said they had plenty of adult supervision, but it was kids supervising other kids. He's worse now than when he went in. He's a little stronger, a little bigger, and a little meaner."
Waltz is not an isolated case, according to former drill instructors, who say many of the cadets in their barracks were on probation or parole. One cadet from the island of St. Croix was sent to MMA by court order this year after he was caught with a sawed-off shotgun.
A look at the profiles of the cadets housed in the Delta barracks in 1995 reveals that the overwhelming majority of the kids had a host of problems, according to school records. A 14-year-old boy was hospitalized the previous year for severe depression. He threatened to kill himself and his parents. He suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had had behavior problems since first grade. Housed in the same barracks was an 18-year-old who had been arrested for possession of marijuana. Also in the Delta Company was a boy on probation for unspecified charges who had a history of temper outbursts and classroom disturbances, according to brief, one-sentence histories of the boys, called entry profiles, given to the drill instructors.
In eight cases, according to school records, boys in Delta had been accepted before their grades had even arrived--so much for stringent admission policies at MMA.
No wonder the drill instructors have such an impossible job. A former drill instructor, who requested anonymity, stated in a sworn affidavit that "at times the Marine Military Academy was like a reform school, but without the resources and knowledge that even reform schools have. I don't believe you can leave kids in charge of kids, especially given some of the problems these boys have had...I knew that beatings, inappropriate sexual behavior, drug usage, and inappropriate hazing occurred at the Marine Military Academy. I tried to protect the kids in my company from these events, and tried to dismiss the boys who did these things."
For years, the drill instructors made recommendations to the administration on how to improve the school. They requested additional support in the form of assistant drill instructors, a recommendation that was echoed in the 1994 study conducted by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools visiting committee. That recommendation was ignored.
The ratio of adults to cadets varies among boarding schools. At New Mexico Military Institute it is between 40 and 60 cadets to one adult. At MMA, the ratio rarely falls below 70 to 1. Drill instructors live with their wives in an apartment on the barracks' first floor. When a drill instructor takes time off, he usually has another cover for him, which means there are times when instructors are supervising as many as 140 boys.
The drill instructors are like surrogate parents, responsible for discipline and making sure the cadets do their work. While the cadets are in classes, the drill instructors wade through a heavy load of paperwork and spend much time answering phone calls from concerned parents.
"If you have 35 to 40 kids on a floor, ideally what you would want is two adults living on either end of the floor," says Mike Sheppard, a Dallas consultant who advises parents on out-of-state military and boarding schools. "One couple for 80 kids is too much. It's too hard on the couple, and it's too much responsibility on the kids."
The drill instructors had also asked for the school to bring in drug-sniffing dogs to help control the rampant drug problem, but the school refused. This fall, MMA, which relies on random drug testing, expelled 32 students for drugs. In contrast, the New Mexico Military Institute uses drug dogs, and 80 percent of the student population submits to voluntary drug testing. Last year, they kicked out two students for drugs.
Dan Alfaro is a Corpus Christi lawyer who once believed so strongly in the precepts of MMA that he paid tuition for seven cadets at the school in the last decade. But he began to grow concerned about an environment he saw becoming increasingly unsafe and unhealthy. Two years ago, he wrote Glasgow a letter, offering to pay for a security guard to patrol the campus "from midnight to 0500 hours" to help the one staff duty officer the school had patrolling each night. Alfaro was troubled by reports that a cadet had sodomized another in the middle of the night. He also learned of a boy who had been brutalized by a gang of cadets who beat him, stripped him naked, and tied him to the flagpole.
"There needed to be more supervision at night," Alfaro says. "The poor DIs can't stay up all night and work all day."
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.
"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.
But the school is steadfastly sticking to its practice of delegating so much authority to the cadets. In a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle, Glasgow said, "We worked hard at that portion of our training, because our board feels very strongly that you transcend leadership training right into the classroom. And you see the academic grades and achievements go right up the ladder as you see a kid gaining rank and responsibility."
There was no mention of providing drill instructors with support personnel. Chances are the school couldn't afford it now if they wanted to. Having had 32 cadets withdraw after the slashing and another 32 expelled for drug use, the school is facing a deficit of more than $1 million in their operating budget, according to a letter Glasgow sent board trustees and staff.
To stem the flow of red ink, Glasgow informed the staff that there would be no Christmas bonuses and that job vacancies would be filled from within. He also, curiously, ordered that "All contributions to other charities or organizations is banned."
The school has seen fit, however, to hire a Dallas public relations firm to help restore its reputation.
Dr. Gregg Lynch and his wife, Fabiola, the parents of Gabriel Cortez, don't know what to think about all this. They originally thought they had done the right thing by enrolling their son in MMA. When he was in eighth grade, his grades dropped precipitously, and he began hanging out with the proverbial "wrong kids." His parents gave him an ultimatum, and when his grades did not come up, they sent him to Harlingen, 2,000 miles away from his home in Laguna Hills, California.
He carried a 3.0 average for the last three years, but did not distinguish himself as a leader. After three years, he was only a lance corporal, which is just one rank up from private. But for the most part, he's stayed clear of serious trouble. Several weeks before he was cut, he was moved into the Bravo Company after he was caught selling smokeless tobacco to an eighth-grader.
Dr. Lynch flew to Harlingen last week to try to get some answers and to calm Gabe, who was upset that charges were dropped against one of the suspects. He's afraid the boys might return to campus.
"We thought we were sending Gabe to a fine college preparatory school, not a reform school," says Dr. Lynch.
But now, he says, he's begun to wonder.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.