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Illicit CP - June 2003

Corpun file 11671

Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas, 23 June 2003

A&M's elite cavalry unit is under fire in hazing case

By Evan Moore
Houston Chronicle

BRYAN-COLLEGE STATION - It was just after 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12, when the first ax handle swung.

That smack was the first of many that sounded that afternoon. More than 300 others followed, as handles wielded by Texas A&M juniors swatted 27 sophomore backsides in the Parsons Mounted Cavalry hay barn.

That brief moment set the stage for one of the largest disciplinary actions in the history of Texas A&M University. Since then, 77 cadets from the university's elite cavalry unit have been singled out for punishment. Threats of criminal charges have been made. And the school has been sued on behalf of the cadets being disciplined.

The incident in the hay barn and the university's response threaten the graduation and career plans of dozens of students, and they have raised concerns among alumni that administrators plan to seriously dilute the Corps of Cadets at the school.

Now 72 of the 77 cadets, most of the membership of the elite cavalry unit, face punishments ranging from reprimands to expulsion. The 27 sophomores have been brought before a Brazos County grand jury. At least 15 juniors and a similar number of seniors face the loss of more than a year of college, loss of scholarships and an end to plans for military careers.

As a result, six juniors have sued A&M, seeking to stay the school from any disciplinary action. That suit is set to be heard Aug. 12 in the state district court in Bryan, and when testimony begins it could paint an embarrassing portrait of the university.

School officials have refused to comment, and few of the students involved would speak for attribution. Some cadets agreed to speak anonymously, however, and their accounts -- combined with those of alumni, school records, pretrial testimony and investigative reports filed in the lawsuit -- tell much of the story.

It begins in 1876, when A&M and its Corps of Cadets were formed.

"A&M has always been steeped in tradition," said John A. Adams, a historian and 1973 A&M graduate who has written several books on the history of the school.

"Most of it was military, and there's always been some hazing, but it was certainly not a secret," Adams said. "But I doubt if there'd be so much interest in this case if it didn't involve the Corps. There've always been those who were ready to take a shot at the Corps."

According to Adams' research, the first big hazing disciplinary case occurred in 1913, when 27 cadet officers were dismissed for "strapping" underclassmen. When 466 other students boycotted classes in protest, the entire group of 493 was expelled.

After that, few decades passed without some hazing incident. The most serious occurred in 1984, when cadet Bruce W. Goodrich died of a stroke after being put through a series of calisthenics. Four upperclassmen were indicted; three were suspended and one expelled.

The cavalry unit was formed in 1919 and has been a public relations tool ever since, appearing at sports events, riding in formation and firing the school cannon.

It is an extracurricular organization of about 80 sophomores, juniors and seniors. Sophomores are treated much like Army recruits: expected to run whenever on Fiddler's Green (the cavalry grounds), do menial tasks and be spoken to harshly. Their discipline often involves calisthenics.

In addition, the cavalry has incorporated the tradition of older cadets administering "swats" with an ax handle to students destined to take their place.

Juniors in Parsons Mounted Cavalry also say it was common knowledge that incoming sophomores all received swats at some point during their first semester in the cavalry, ostensibly for a "mistake."

Last year's sophomores made their mistake on Oct. 11, during the A&M-Baylor football game. Shortly before the game it was discovered that the sophomores had forgotten to load part of the cannon assembly, forcing juniors to race back for it. As punishment, the sophomores were assembled at Fiddler's Green the following day and asked to accept three "half swats" each from four juniors.

The following week, however, Ty Keeling, a senior and commander of the cavalry unit, reported the incident to Corps Commandant John Van Alstyne.

Van Alstyne began an investigation. Cavalry members were questioned by school administrators and forced to sign an oath of secrecy. On Oct. 30, Van Alstyne handed the case to campus police, who called in Brazos County Attorney Jim Kuboviak.

The administration "acted as though this was a real revelation to them," said Pat Murphy, a Dallas businessman and A&M graduate who attempted to intervene on behalf of several of the cadets.

"Sure, they had to put a stop to some of this stuff, but nobody was injured, nobody was complaining and they didn't have to ruin the futures of a bunch of good kids."

2003 Star Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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