This week we mourn the passing of U.S Marine, Vietnam War Veteran, and accomplished actor, R. Lee Ermey, who died on April 15 at the age of 74.
I had the pleasure of meeting the Gunny once, which is to say I shook his hand and snapped a photo at SHOT Show a few years back, a place where he was a staple, often promoting Glock firearms or SOG knives. He’d walk around range day, shaking hands and signing autographs for a slew of bloggers and YouTubers who owed a lot of their success to what he did on TV with the History Channel’s Mail Call in the early 2000s and later on Lock n’ Load with R. Lee Ermey. Just as he was on the screen, he was always larger than life wherever he went, always looking every bit the Gunny he portrayed and the drill sergeant he was.
Ermey was born in Emporia, Kansas on March 24, 1944 and grew up with five brothers on a farm outside of Kansas City, Kansas.
The family left Kansas for Zillah, Washington in 1958 when Ermey was 14. He proved to be a rebellious teenager, arrested twice for criminal mischief by the time he was 17. After his second arrest, a judge gave him a choice between the military or jail—he chose the former.
In 1961, at the age of 17, Ermey enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and completed recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Sand Diego.
He served in the aviation support field before becoming a drill instructor in India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, in San Diego where he was assigned from 1965 to 1967.
He then served in Marine Wing Support Group 17 in Okinawa, Japan until 1968, when he was ordered to Vietnam with MWSG-17 and completed a 14-month tour of duty.
He spent the remainder of his service career in Okinawa where was was advanced to the rank of staff sergeant. Ermey was medically discharged in 1972 because of various injuries he’d sustained.
Though he never achieved the rank while on active duty, Ermey was given an honorary promotion to gunnery sergeant by the Commandant of the Marine Corps General James L. Jones on May 17, 2002.
Ermey got into movies almost directly after his time in the Marines. While attending the University of Manila in the Philippines on the G.I. Bill, he played a First Air Cavalry pilot in the sprawling Vietnam epic by Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now, also doubling as a technical advisor.
After that, movies became a focus of his. He played a Marine drill instructor for the first time in Sidney Furie’s The Boys In Company C and had a few minor roles in various movies until 1987, when he was brought on as the technical advisor for a movie called Full Metal Jacket.