Years before I ever slipped on my first pair of boots, long before I’d ever dreamt of wearing dog tags, I knew what a Marine was. While most popular culture of the 80s and 90s used terms like “Sarge” and “soldier” indiscriminately across all branches and ranks, there was one man who stood out from a media saturated with posers as undeniably Marine in demeanor and delivery.
R. Lee Ermey’s breakout role in “Full Metal Jacket” didn’t only provide the world with a glimpse of what Marine Corps Recruit Training had to offer in terms of colorful vocabulary and creative insults — he defined the role of drill instructor in the cultural lexicon. From that point forward, just about every “boot camp” scene in film and television can be traced back to the man who once served as an active duty Marine himself.
Generations of aspiring bulldog “Drill Hats” have since reviewed the Gunny’s performance along their own paths to the drill field. VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray copies of his work, indicative of the very generations of Marines they accompanied, have carried R. Lee Ermey back to Parris Island and MCRD San Diego time and time again, ensuring his legacy, and the proud traditions he spent a lifetime representing, never truly leave our squad bays.
The Gunny’s reach, however, far exceeded that first performance, both physically and metaphorically. He went on to appear in countless films and television shows, representing the Corps he held dear, and championing veteran issues through his charisma and notoriety.
However, despite all the listings on R. Lee Ermey’s IMDB page, it isn’t the man’s appearances on screen that Marines have shared since word broke that he passed. No, it was the appearances he made in their lives that have dominated social media.
R. Lee Ermey didn’t just play a Marine on TV; he served on active duty for eleven years, including a 14 month tour in Vietnam, before being medically retired as a Staff Sergeant in 1972 (he was later given an honorary promotion to Gunnery Sergeant). He never stopped thinking about those years in uniform either — and that isn’t simply journalistic bloviation. I know because I asked him.
I, like so many Marines, have a story about a personal conversation I had with the famous Gunny. We met in Las Vegas at a Marine Corps Ball I had been invited to attend, and despite the fact that Marines lined up for hours to meet the man, he sat patiently, kindly, and exchanged a few thoughtful moments with each service member that waited. This wasn’t a one time thing… I know dozens of Marines with similar stories from different events – each recounting a man who rarely turned down a free drink — as well as a man who was offered a seemingly countless number of them.
In my brief window of time with the legendary Marine, I can report that he looked me square in the eye and spoke in a tone that made me feel as though he had been waiting in line for his turn to talk to me, instead of the other way around. He addressed my wife as though we had all been friends for years, answered and asked a few questions, and volunteered to pose for a few photos with us. He wasn’t in a hurry to see us go, but he was respectfully concise for the sake of the line.
When I asked him how he managed to do it, he told me that the Marines he meets at these events remind him of his days in uniform, and more importantly, of why he did what he did.
Now, as I scroll through my newsfeed, I see dozens of images of smiling Marines standing alongside the Gunny — and I know that he offered each of them the same respect and honor that he offered me — a brand new corporal that thought he had the world figured out. With the hindsight of age, I’m embarrassed at my confidence alongside a man who dedicated himself to service. I saw the Gunny as a Marine, a brother – but now I know that he was more than that.
R. Lee Ermey offered young Marines like me a connection to the Marines we read about in books. He represented the “Old Corps” we always heard about, back when Marines were made of sandpaper and iron, fought like Spartans, and carried their honor in such a manner that you’d almost think it had a physical weight and could be brandished as a weapon.
Now imagine being that young Marine, standing in the presence of the man who represented that old Corps you so admired, and having him tell you that you lived up to that standard, that you brought honor to the Corps.
Countless Marines don’t have to imagine, because that’s what Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey did for them, just as he did for me. Male, female, white, black — none of it mattered to the Gunny. When he looked at Marines, all he saw was green.
In many ways, R. Lee Ermey represented the best of the veteran community through his pride, positivity, and unceasing work ethic. He represented the Marine Corps, with a rank that served not just as his name, but verged on honorary title: “The Gunny.”
Rest easy, Gunny. We’ll regroup on the other side.
You can see the original announcement from R. Lee Ermey’s manager below:
Image courtesy of the Associated Press