Soldiers as scholars

Military academy gears up for new year
Thursday, September 4, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:24 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 27, 2008

MEXICO, Mo.-- Sixteen-year-old Keith Hammond of Lubbock, Texas, sat nervously in a barber’s chair as inches of his red hair fell to the floor. It was one of many introductions for the new cadet Tuesday at the Missouri Military Academy.

“Keith’s really a good kid,” Alicia Wills, his mother, whispered as she watched her son. “I just want him to be in a good learning environment around other good kids.”

After the buzz cut, Hammond continued the registration process. “I’m not sure what to expect,” he said. “This sort of thing is really not my style.”

His mother, on the other hand, has high expectations. “I hope he learns good study skills and how to set a goal for himself and accomplish it,” Wills said.

Increased enrollment numbers

Hammond is one of the academy’s almost 265 cadets starting school this year — about an 11 percent increase from last year’s enrollment of 238 cadets.

Lt. Col. Richard Ray, academic dean of the boys-only school, credits steady enrollment of new recruits to a combination of advertising, recruiting and word of mouth.

“We pride ourselves on our education standards. We have recently upgraded our math and English programs,” Ray said. “We get cadets from all over America, and even from overseas.”

This year, cadets come from 25 states and 12 countries. They range from fifth to 12th grade.

As the students arrived at the academy’s bronze gates, they proceeded around a circle drive and through a large grassy landscape leading to Stribling Hall, the administration building. In the front of the 115-year-old academy, an American flag waved over the 228-acre campus. The grounds include a football field and a rifle range.

Life after the academy

Few cadets pursue a career in the armed services once they leave the school. But, Ray said, more than 90 percent of the cadets go on to college.

“We usually only have about three or four cadets per graduating class go on to join the military,” said Capt. Luke Smith, director of publications and information. “We like to think of ourselves as more of a college preparatory school.”

Staff Sgt. Paul Long, a senior in his fourth year at the academy, said he just enlisted in the Army. “On June 17th, I ship off to Benning, Ga.,” he said.

Long, formerly of Columbia, reflected on his time at the academy. “I don’t think I’ve changed very much, but I have definitely learned a lot from living in a more mature atmosphere,” he said. “I am amazed by the tradition and brotherhood here.”

Col. Ronald Kelly, president of the academy, said he thinks that the school’s benefits go far beyond military training.

“MMA’s motto reflects our mission: ‘Look like a soldier, act like a gentleman, study like a scholar.’ While we structure the academy around a military lifestyle, our main emphases are on academics, personal discipline and ethical behavior,” Kelly said.

The academy also has an athletics program with 11 varsity sports. Michael Pemberton, assistant football coach, is looking forward to a good season this year.

“The biggest sporting event each year is the annual state military football game against Wentworth Military Academy. The winner gets the Golden Football Trophy, and our goal is to take it this year from Wentworth,” Pemberton said.

First day on campus

Meanwhile, Hammond tried to absorb his first day on campus. Given a big, blue plastic tub, he moved from station to station filling it with his hat, gloves, shoes, uniform and toiletries. Then he met up with his mother and, after lunch, they made their way to his brick-walled barracks.

“I’m still not sure how I feel right now,” Hammond muttered.

His mother was starting to feel sad. “I need to get out of here before I lose it,” Wills said. “It’ll be hard not seeing him as much, even though we’ll see him on breaks. I’m trying not to cry.”

Finally, Hammond had to say goodbye. He gave his mother one last hug and joined his fellow cadets as Wills pulled away.

“This was her idea, and I’m not sure if I’m made for it here,” Hammond said later. “I’ve never been in a school for more than two years, and I doubt if I stay here all four years.”

Kelly said how long a cadet stays at the academy depends on many factors.

“Many cadets attend for their entire high school careers, or, in the case of Junior School cadets, even longer. On the other hand, MMA receives many international students who enroll for a single term in order to learn the English language,” he said. “A cadet’s tenure depends on his goals and his commitment to improving himself.”

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