Late at night, before he would take me to the recruiting station where I would board the van that would take me to the St. Louis MEPS station, my father Robert and I were both coming to terms with the fact that I was going into the Army at sunrise. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my nerves were working against me…I had volunteered, signed the documents, proved that I could do pushups, sit-ups, walk like a duck in my underwear, and could tolerate the other questionable practices that occur during the MEPS physical. I had a reserved military occupational speciality already assigned to me…provided that I made it through basic and could pass the individual training, my career with helicopters was set. In the morning, that action would go into motion. But that night, I was just an eighteen-year-old just days out of high school sitting with my dad in the living room. He decided that maybe a movie would help get my mind off of things. He made a selection at the DVD case and put in the flick while I made the popcorn, and before the microwave beeped, that voice came bleeding through the walls. You know the words. I’m willing to bet that many of you have his entire dialogue of the movie memorized verbatim. I know I still do. The unfiltered, rapid-fire verbal assault of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is so beloved for it’s blunt force trauma and creativity, and that’s a credit to R. Lee Ermey’s history with the Marine Corps. And it’s all him too…Ermey’s role in that film was improvised, a shocking break for a Stanley Kubrick film.
Ronald Lee Ermey was a hellraiser of a teenager and in 1961, got the “go to war or go to jail” choice by a judge in Washington State. After training at MCRD San Diego, he served in aviation support before becoming a Drill Instructor at San Diego for two years. In 1968, Ermey was sent to Okinawa, Japan and spent fourteen months in Vietnam before being medically discharged in 1972 as a Staff Sergeant (he was given an honorary promotion to Gunnery Sergeant in 2002.) He married his wife Nila in 1975, and started his acting career in 1978 with The Boys in Company C and in an uncredited role as a helicopter pilot in Apocalypse Now. But 1987’s Full Metal Jacket put Ermey front and center, lighting up a career that made him a household name, the spitting image of what was expected out of a drill instructor. He could be as kid friendly as the toy soldier Sarge in Toy Story, or he could be as sinister as Sheriff Hoyt in the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But his main contribution was to the service members, people who looked up to him. His shows Mail Call, Lock N’ Load with R. Lee Ermey and GunnyTime provided viewers with insights into elements of military items, from weapons and vehicles to history and of course, that blunt humor that fans loved.
Recently, BangShift had seen Ermey at the SEMA show in Las Vegas, where he was a celebrity draw for Omix-ADA. The line to meet and greet with that man seemed to stretch forever and for good reason…you got a few good minutes with the Gunny, whether you wanted to talk shop or, as I got to witness, take some personalized abuse by request. I don’t make for a good picture, but I’m damn proud to have this one in my collection. He made sure that everyone got their fair share of time and if he learned you were a vet, he thanked you. And that pales in comparison to how many voices I heard during my time in uniform that admitted that this man’s performance in some way influenced them to dig down and find some kind of strength when they needed it most. That’s the kind of impact precious few leave on the world. Rest easy, Marine.
“But always remember this: Marines die. That’s what we’re here for. But the Marine Corps lives forever, and that means you live forever.”