In the gloomy predawn hours of october 6, reveille blasted through the darkened barracks of the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen and blared through overhead speakers, its rapid-fire succession of notes ricocheting off the cinder-block walls and rousing sleeping cadets from their racks. But on that particular fall morning, the cadets of Bravo Company were already awake, many lying wide-eyed in the dark. They had been jolted from their sleep not by reveille but by the panicked cries of eighteen-year-old Cadet Lance Corporal Gabriel Cortez, who had screamed and stumbled out of bed at a few moments after 0300 hours, holding his hand against his neck as footsteps rushed away and down the hall into the darkness. Along his neck, a fresh gash snaked from his right jaw down to the base of his throat, trailing off as it climbed halfway up the other side. Cadets had poured out of their rooms, and a frantic search of the barracks had ensued while Cortez sat in a chair, pale and trembling, his T-shirt covered in blood. Company commanders switched on lights until the barracks blazed in the nighttime, and the cadets were called out on line, standing at attention until everyone was accounted for. Harlingen police officers arrived and searched cadets’ rooms, peering into wall lockers and rifling through belongings; they left before reveille, having made no arrests but promising to return later that day.
By first mess, as the sun started to break over the barracks, rumors circulated that Cortez, who had been taken away in an ambulance, was dying or dead. Cadets sat in the mess hall, looking uneasily at each other over their syrupy pancakes and scrambled eggs. “There were a lot of cold, distant stares,” says Cadet First Sergeant Frank Walker of Echo Company, “because it could have been any one of us.” Cortez hadn’t seen his attackers’ faces in the dark, just fleeing shadows, and the cadets knew that whoever had tried to slit his throat lay in their midst. They went through the motions of their day with a growing sense of apprehension as that morning, and then that afternoon, and then that evening, brought no arrests. “We all thought we knew each other real well,” says Cadet Major Eliel Hinojosa of Echo Company, “but there was a part of each other we just weren’t sure about anymore.” As dusk fell over the academy, it became clear that the cadets who had attacked Cortez would remain among the corps for another night. A deepening anxiety settled over Bravo Company, where cadets found strength in numbers, some sleeping four or five to a 15- by 20-foot room.
After lights-out, a handful of high-ranking cadets decided to take matters into their own hands. They sent for seventeen-year-old Cadet Corporal Christopher Boze, an oddball widely disliked in the corps, who was told to report to the study room. There he found his roommate, Cadet Corporal Jeremy Jensen, standing before a group of eight to ten infuriated cadets. They ordered Boze to stand at attention against the wall, explaining that there was evidence of his and Jensen’s complicity in the attack on Cortez—which, Boze says, they would not reveal—and that a confession would be beaten out of them. “I’m not sure how many of them there were,” recalls Boze. “I stared straight ahead at a little blue plaque on the wall because we were struck every time we looked around or answered a question with an answer they did not like.” When Jensen’s nose and chin began to bleed, Boze was forced to wipe the blood off with his bare hand; Jensen later crumpled to the floor and rolled into the fetal position while Boze continued to maintain their innocence. “They were accusing us of trying to kill Cortez,” says Boze, “and I kept on telling them we didn’t know anything about it.” After three hours of brutal questioning, the group delivered its sentence. Across Boze’s and Jensen’s foreheads, in permanent marker, they wrote “G-U-I-L-T-Y.”
The marine military academy lies on one side of the well-manicured intersection of Marine Drive and Iwo Jima Boulevard, next to the blustery airfield of the Harlingen airport; on the opposite side lies the Valley’s most potent symbol of military honor and duty, the 78-foot-high Iwo Jima War Memorial—the original plaster model, now covered in a bronze epoxy, that was used to cast the famous sculpture of six soldiers straining to plant an American flag that resides at Arlington National Cemetery. The statue’s exaggerated scale, with its dangling sixteen-foot-long M-1 rifle, dwarfs everything in its vicinity—the dusty museum next to it, filled with Purple Hearts, bayonets, and yellowed recruitment posters; the live oaks planted in remembrance of fallen Marines; and the inscription, burnished in gold, along the monument’s granite base that reads “Uncommon Valor Was a Common Virtue.”
The academy is Texas’ best-known military high school and the only secondary school in the country modeled on—although not affiliated with—the United States Marine Corps, right down to its scarlet and gold colors, freshly pressed green “C” uniforms, and often-quoted Marine motto: semper fidelis, or “always faithful.” This is where wealthy Houston and Dallas families send their sons who hope to join the service someday or who, perhaps, need a little discipline. To the tune of $17,500 a year, unruly teenagers are transformed into closely cropped cadets and put through their paces by retired Marines with ramrod posture who have passed through the boot camps of San Diego and Parris Island and did tours of Korea and Vietnam. From reveille to taps, eighth through twelfth graders follow military customs to the letter, bracing for inspection and colors formation, their shoes and their brass buttons shined to a high gloss. Those who need additional discipline are often ordered to march in formation carrying rifles, scrub bathrooms with a toothbrush, or perform extra PT (physical training, or in cadet parlance, “physical torture”) in the quad, which is framed by seven barracks, each of which houses one of the academy’s rifle companies: Alpha, Bravo,