The Iwo Jima Monument towers over the Marine Military Academy parade grounds in Harlingen, an iconic symbol of one of the fiercest battles of World War II and the final resting place of a Rio Grande Valley Marine depicted in the sculpture and later killed in the battle.
Across Iwo Jima Boulevard is the main gate to the 141-acre MMA campus, where for more than 50 years teenagers have learned to become men through a rigorous academic regimen based in the U.S. Marine Corps values of honor, courage and commitment.
Running a military academy is also big business, and MMA represents a private venture unique to the Valley. Retired Marine Corps Col. R. Glenn Hill, the academy’s superintendent, oversees the $12-million annual operating budget that fuels the nonprofit organization. “We are a global business,” Hill said. “We’ve got cadets right now from 17 states and 14 countries. And it’s like any other business in that we need to keep our people focused on the mission.”
Steeped in Marine Corps tradition and core values, MMA boasts an almost unheard of 100-percent college acceptance rate. “Our mission involves education and a concern for our country in developing young men who have learned leadership and commitment,” Hill said. “We are a college preparatory school. We focus on the academics and we work hard to provide quality of life.”
Hill said about 60 percent of MMA’s operating revenue comes from tuition, with the other 40 percent in the form of donations. “We have donors from across the country that give on an annual basis and we are in their estate planning,” he said. “A lot of people that do that are prior military, and not necessarily Marines.”
Sometimes those donations come as a surprise. Hill recalled receiving a bequest for $100,000 from a San Benito resident following his death. The name was not familiar and after a little research, it was discovered the man was a regular attendee of MMA events like the annual Iwo Jima and Memorial Day parades. Alumni also rank high as donors, and many of their sons have attended the all-male academy. Almost every building on the campus is named for a major donor, and inside the buildings numerous plaques recognize others who have supported the school financially.
The total annual cost for a cadet to attend MMA is $42,050, of which the lion’s share is $38,750 for tuition, room and board. Other fees include a $1,400 uniform fee. Approximately 40 percent of cadets receive some level of tuition assistance in the form of partial scholarships. MMA also operates summer enrichment programs designed to help young men who are not part of the Corps of Cadets succeed academically, at a cost of $4,500.
With current enrollment at 210 cadets, MMA operates with a staff of 110 employees. Retired Marines supervise the cadets’ daily routines while professional educators and counselors guide the students’ academic life. Other functions such as the mess hall are staffed with employees.
“We periodically look at staffing and ask if it would be better to contract out some functions, such as the mess hall,” Hill said. “We have always made the decision it’s better for the school to hire staff instead of contract. In the mess hall, we want to make sure the cadets get good nourishing food in quantities you need for teenage boys.”
The campus has 300,000 square feet of indoor space in 41 buildings, a few of which were originally constructed for an old military base and later renovated. During World War II, the base was established as the Harlingen Army Air Field and was the site of an Army aerial gunnery school. The field closed in 1946, only to be reactivated as Harlingen Air Force Base in 1952 during the Korean War. Military cutbacks resulted in the base’s closure in 1962 and its transition to civilian use, which today includes MMA and Valley International Airport.
Hill said Marine Corps values and quality education combine to establish a setting where hard work and performance are prized. “We want to teach that you are rewarded for good performance and that there are consequences for poor performance,” Hill said. “We want our cadets to make good decisions. We teach ethical behavior so they will do the right things in life.”
The cadets’ introduction to their service as a member of the Marine Corps JROTC program, and the discipline that comes with it, begins immediately. “What we do is take away the distractions,” Hill said. “There are no girls. Everyone wears the same clothes. It’s a regimented lifestyle. When you cut off their hair and put them in the same uniform they are just kids learning to work with one another.”
And the commitment to education starts at the same time. “One of the first people (a cadet) meets is a college counselor,” he said. MMA is a designated Naval Honor School, which means the academy can nominate top cadets to U.S. service academies like the U.S. Naval Academy, where more than 400 MMA graduates have attended.
Hill enlisted in the Marines in 1966, the same year as MMA’s first graduating class. After 30 years active duty, he retired from the military and joined the academy staff, where he has served for 23 years. He is keenly aware of MMA’s place in Harlingen as a business and its role as a community institution. “We operate MMA in a manner that’s cost-effective and pleases our customers, which are parents and cadets, and maintaining a good work environment.”
MMA has opened its doors to various community groups to use facilities for meetings and other events, and cadets perform some 4,000 hours of community service each year. “We are a business in Harlingen and Cameron County, so we want to be productive members of the community,” Hill said.
The history of MMA, its culture and values are symbolically embodied in the giant sculpture across Iwo Jima Boulevard. Created by sculptor Dr. Felix W. de Weldon, the monument was inspired by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of six Marines raising the American flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.
It is the original sculpture that was used to cast the bronze monument that is the centerpiece of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. The artist donated the monument to MMA and it was dedicated in 1982.
The figures stand 32 feet high and include Marine Cpl. Harlon H. Block of Weslaco, who is depicted placing the 78-foot flagpole in the ground. Block was killed in action three days after Rosenthal’s photo was taken. His remains were moved to a gravesite directly behind the monument. Hill said the monument is a source of pride for the academy and Harlingen. “Having Harlon Block buried here is a big deal. We feel very honored to have him here.”