'Gunny' Remembered: The Life of R. Lee Ermey

Retired Honorary Gunnery Sgt. R. Lee Ermey sits on the set of "Mail Call" (Photo courtesy of History Channel).
Retired Honorary Gunnery Sgt. R. Lee Ermey sits on the set of "Mail Call" (Photo courtesy of History Channel).

"This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine."

It’s a classic quote, lodged in the minds of countless filmgoers since 1987. It's uttered by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (aka “Gunny”) in Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam movie Full Metal Jacket. The quote, along with others that are unprintable in a family newspaper, cemented Gunny, and the Marine Corps veteran who played him, as an iconic character.

Gunny’s legacy has now found a permanent resting place in the hearts of many, as R. Lee Ermey, the veteran and actor who embodied the hard-charging sergeant, passed away from complications from pneumonia on April 15, 2018.

Over the years, Full Metal Jacket, has become an iconic film, widely revered and often quoted by fans. The film offers a compelling depiction of the trials and perils of becoming a United States Marine. With hardcore discipline, an unrelenting intensity and the motivational tactics known to characterize many Corps drill sergeants, Gunny pushed the Marines in the film to embrace their inner warrior, connect with their rifles and acclimate to the high expectations of becoming a Marine.

“It is extremely difficult to truly quantify all of the great things this man has selflessly done for, and on behalf of, our many men and women in uniform. He has also contributed many iconic and indelible characters on film that will live on forever,” Ermey's long-time manager, Bill Rogin, said in a statement on Facebook.

Vietnam Experience

Gunny brought authenticity to his role as Sergeant Hartman, having himself served in Vietnam as a Marine. Ermey spent 11 years in the Marine Corps, according to his online biography. Two of these years, in fact, were spent as a Drill Instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

Ermey arrived in Vietnam in 1968, spending 14 months attached to Marine Wing Support Group 17, followed by 2 tours in Okinawa. He rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant and was medically retired for injuries received.

Marine Corps officials confirmed to Military.com that Ermey was a Rifleman and Repair Shop Mechanic. Officials also provided information on his awards, which included: Good Conduct Medal (x2); the National Defense Service Medal; the Vietnam Service Medal with Bronze Star; the Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device; the Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Unit; Meritorious Unit; the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; and a Meritorious Unit Citation

On May 17, 2002, he received an honorary promotion to Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) by Commandant James L. Jones, becoming the first retiree in the history of the Marines to be promoted.

“Gunnery Sergeant Hartman of Full Metal Jacket fame was a hard and principled man. The real R. Lee Ermey was a family man, and a kind and gentle soul. He was generous to everyone around him. And, he especially cared deeply for others in need,” Rogin’s statement adds.

Giving Back to the Military

Along these lines, Gunny’s commitment to the U.S. military expanded far beyond his role in Full Metal Jacket. Ermey devoted years of his life helping Marines and the U.S. military, serving as a spokesperson for the Young Marines Youth Organization. He made numerous personal appearances at military events and even made several trips to the Middle East to support U.S. troops in wartime.

Overall, Ermey starred in more than 60 films, including the well-known Apocalypse Now. His other prominent roles included starring in Saving Silverman, with Jason Biggs, Jack Black, Steve Zahn and Amanda Peet. He appeared opposite Jeff Bridges in Scenes of the Crime and Harvey Keitel in Taking Sides.

Ultimately, while he may no longer be with us, Ermey's devotion, inspirational spirit and commitment to the U.S. military is, without question, something which will endure.

“He will be greatly missed by all of us,” Rogin says.

Or as Gunny would say, “My rifle, without me, is useless.”

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