Debunking the Myth of
Straight and the Marine Corps
by Wes Fager (c) 2003

I been around, you know. There was a time when I could see, and I have seen boys like these, younger than these, their arms torn out, their legs ripped off.  But there is nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit, there is no prosthetic for that.
Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, USMC Ret. (Al Pacino) in the 1992 movie Scent of a Woman.  
Straight founder and former US Ambassador to Italy Melvin Sembler's Marine Corps (left) and Italian Arma dei Carabinieri (right) Honor Guard at the US Embassy Rome.

Many people continue to think of Straight as a character builder program for teens much the same way they see the United States Marine Corps turning boys into men.  People feel this way because Marine recruits suffer harsh living conditions.  They are deprived and insulted,  and are brutally confronted by drill instructors.  Marines tear a person down and then build him back up in the Marine image.  Straight claims to do that. It is true that like Marines Straight kids go in with long hair, wearing black Led Zepplin T-shirts,  and come out with short-cropped hairdos wearing collared sport shirts or dress shirts.  But the difference stops there.

Two favorite arguments of cults and their apologists are these: 

  • "Look at the Mormon Church.  A hundred years ago everyone looked at them as being a cult,  but now they are accepted as one of the fastest growing, most respected of modern religions."
  • "Our organization uses the same methods to rebuild people that the United States Marine Corps uses--and the Marines is not a destructive cult."

In their book CULTS IN OUR MIDST,  Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Berkeley, and Janja Lalich address the later issue.  They give a table on pages 100 - 101 listing 19 differences between the United States Marine Corps and cults. I'm not going to get into the Mormon thing here, but I do want to look at the Straight-to-Marine Corps comparison.

The Marines vs. Straight

Marines Straight, Inc.
United States Marines are taught to stand up for one another and to have pride in their unit.  They trust one another.  Straight kids attack one another and rat on one another for the slightest rule infraction for fear of being attacked themselves for failure to turn a fellow in. As in the old Soviet Army,  no one trusts anyone.
Marine boots are treated badly by a trained drill instructor. Boots do not routinely participate in training other boots.   Straight kids are treated badly by the clinical staff,  many of whom are high school dropouts with their only training being that they are Straight graduates.  Fellow boots attack one another as they participate in their own clinical processes. .
Marines are taught to be intrepid. Straight phasors are expected to cower as they let their classmates spit in their faces.
Marines are constantly out of doors, in the sunshine.  Playing sports is mandatory. Straight kids often complain of not seeing the sun for months.  They are not allowed to play sports.
Marine boots are well fed and required to build their bodies up. Straightlings are often denied food and boots are forbidden from building their bodies.
Despite the stereotyping,  Marines are taught skills often beyond combat such as electronics.  Marines are encouraged to attend universities.   Straight boots do not attend school and there is little time for homework for upper phasors.  Lagging far behind their peers is a major reason for depression in Straight graduates and cop-outs.  
It is assumed that most Marine boots graduate. No one knows Straight's actual attrition rate, but the author estimates (based on his personal observation)  that only about 1 in 5 ever graduate Straight. 
Marines can receive mail and write or call home.  They are allowed leave in the death of a close relative or friend. Straightlings may neither send or receive mail,  or even call home.  They can attend the funeral of a sibling or parent only,  and then only if escorted by an old comer.
Marines are allowed to go to the library and chapel. Straight kids are allowed to read nothing including the back off a cereal box, a roadside sign,  or even a Bible. They can not even be visited by a priest or rabbi unless he is cleared by Straight.
Marines are allowed to listen to news on TV. Straight kids are not allowed to watch TV.
A Marine boot's parent can do any thing he wants. Straight parents are ostracized for drinking alcohol.  They may not take a business trip or attend a funeral out-of-town without Straight's permission.
Marines are taught to stand on their own two feet, to make it in life.   Straightlings are taught they will die without Straight.
Marines do not concentrate on body eliminations. There are reports of Straight kids being restrained in vomit, excrement, and urine. 
Marines do not motivate. Straight kids motivate.
Marines are allowed to wipe themselves in privacy after defecating.   Straight kids must be watched for fear they will commit suicide.
Marines go to boot camp for a fixed time period.  Straight kids are often told they are there for a 14 day evaluation and are still there a year later. 
Sick and injured Marines get proper medical and dental attention. Medical attention is often predicated on whether the doctor being seen is trusted.
Marines are paid.  Straight parents pay dearly in their time and from their pocketbooks.  Straight parents are told mental hospitals cost  $36,000 for 30 days and that Straight is only a fraction of that.  What they don't say is that with  medical insurance your out-of-pocket expense at a mental hospital would be like $3,600.  Your out-of-pocket Straight cost will be $8,000 to $20,000.
Marines are allowed to date,  and to joke one another about persons of the opposite sex. Straight kids may not date--even after they graduate.  They must report on themselves for having thoughts about persons of the opposite (or same) sex,  or for masturbating.  If a female passes by,  male clients must drop their eyes.  They must reveal to GROUP all aspects of the sexual past. 
Female Marines make themselves attractive by wearing makeup and staying fit.  They are allowed to wear sanitary napkins.   Female Straight students wear no makeup.  There are cases of little girls on their periods sitting in pools of blood.
Barrack doors and windows are left open in case of fire. Depending on the time period, windows are often nailed shut and doors are deadbolt locked preventing escape from the inside.
Marines can shave with anything they chose. Straight kids must use plastic razors.  Furthermore, there are cases of them sharing razors and even tooth brushes.
Marines are issued carbines and bullets. Steak knives are hidden from Straight students.
Marines who graduate boot camp are filled with pride and with a sense of esprit de corps.  They may not be sent back to boot camp.   One lives Straight labeled a drug addict,  even though he may not be a drug addict.  He is behind in his school work and his friends have passed him in school.  While a Marine knows that after leaving boot camp he can get married,  a Straight graduate lives under the constant fear of being sent back to Phase 1 for being familiar with someone of the opposite sex. 
I assume that few Marines take their own life. A remarkably high percentage of Straight students kill themselves.
A Marine recruit may voluntarily drop out of the program at any time. Straight is a prison with guards.  You can not leave.
The Marines are looking for a few good men. Straight is looking for all the middle class and above white youths and teenagers they can get to treat for addictions even if they don't have an addiction.
Sometimes recruits break under pressure and may reveal private matters. These data are held confidential and recruits may be given mental health help if it is warranted. While there may be isolated incidences where someone holds these data against a boot, there is no policy of using these data against him should he sue. Straight cajoles, confuses and/or terrifies newcomers into revealing their deepest, most embarrassing secrets. Kids are enticed to air their dirty laundry at public recruiting promotions like PTA meetings and TV shows to shock viewers of the danger their kids are in without Straight.
I've always been proud of being a Marine. I won't hesitate to defend the Corps.
Comedian Jonathan Winters--a former Marine

Ambassador Melvin Sembler (center) and Congressman Bill Young (right) pose in front of the $113 million Mel Sembler Building which Sembler had bought and named for himself. An ever present Marine guard is at left.

Through the years I have heard so many former Marines say, "Once a Marine, always a Marine." Like Jonathan Winters, ALL Marines that I have ever met are proud of being a Marine. I don't know what they do in there but they sure are proud of it.

In contrast, earlier this year Straight's former executive director, Dr. Mel Riddile, was selected Best Principal in Virginia. He was so embarrassed to have been associated with Straight that the resume he furnished to the press never mentions Straight. In fact we are hard-pressed to get any former director or officer of Straight to proudly acknowledge that he was part of Straight.

Well until Sept. 28, 2005 there was at least two. For 25 years Melvin Sembler has bragged to anyone who would listen that he and his wife Betty founded Straight. In 2003 he addressed the students at their alma mater, Northwestern University, and told them, "We [Betty and I] founded and directed for many years a treatment program that rehabilitated over 12,000 young drug abusers."

For four years ending in the summer of 2005, he proudly included the following statement as part of his official embassy biography:

"Although best known as a leading shopping center developer, Sembler is also renowned for his activism in the anti-drug movement. In 1976, Sembler and his wife Betty founded STRAIGHT, an adolescent drug treatment program. During its 17 years of existence, STRAIGHT successfully graduated more than 12,000 young people nationwide from its remarkable program."

But Straight's reputation for dastardly child abuse resurfaced in national and international media in 2004 - 2005. A January 2005 interview with a former Straight client on The Montel Williams Show probably led to the announced resignation of Ambassador Sembler within hours of that broadcast (though he did not actually leave till June). The medial blitz about Straight continued through 2005 until finally on September 28, 2005 Melvin Sembler submitted an affidavit in court declaring, "Neither my wife nor I participated in the day-to-day operations of Straight, Inc."