R. Lee Ermey may best be known for playing Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, but he was also a real-life Marine who served in Vietnam and on Okinawa. Outside of his military and acting careers, he spent his time supporting active service members.
A young R. Lee Ermey’s run-ins with the law
R. Lee Ermey was born on March 24, 1944, in Emporia, Kansas. One of six children, he spent the first 14 years of his life living on a farm on the outskirts of Kansas City. In 1958, his family relocated to Zillah, Washington.
As a teenager, Emery frequently got into trouble with the law. By the age of 17, he’d been arrested twice for criminal mischief. Following his second arrest, the judge gave him a choice: go to jail or join the US military. Ermey chose the military.
An 11-year-long career with the Marine Corps
Initially, R. Lee Ermey had hoped to join the US Navy but was turned down because of his past. As such, he enlisted with the US Marine Corps and underwent recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. He served in the aviation support field before becoming a drill sergeant in India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, stationed at the Recruit Depot from 1965-67.
Following his stint in San Diego, Ermey served with Marine Wing Support Group (MWSG) 17 at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Japan. He was then sent to South Vietnam for 14 months, before returning to Okinawa, where he was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant and performed aviation duties.
In 1972, Ermey was medically discharged from the Marine Corps for injuries he’d suffered during his service. Speaking with the New York Times in 1987, he explained his career had been ended “by a rocket” in 1969, but would not discuss the matter further. It was known, however, that he carried shrapnel in his back until his death.
For his service, he was awarded: the Meritorious Unit Commendation; the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; the Sharpshooter Badge; the Good Conduct Medal; the National Defense Service Medal; the Marksman Badge; the Vietnam Gallantry Cross; the Vietnam Service Medal; and the Vietnam Campaign Medal.
Following his retirement, Ermey was awarded the Marine Corps Instructor Ribbon for his service as a recruiting training instructor. In 2002, he was also honorarily promoted to the rank of gunnery sergeant by then-Marine Corps Commander James L. Jones, becoming the only Marine to receive the honor.
Move into acting
Over the course of his acting career, R. Lee Ermey starred in over 60 film and television roles. His first was as a helicopter pilot in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, during which he also doubled as the film’s technical advisor. At the time, he was studying criminology and drama at the University of Manila.
Ermey continued to star in smaller roles until being cast in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket. Director Stanley Kubrick initially intended on him being the technical advisor but cast him as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman after watching an instructional tape he’d recorded. Ermey was allowed to change and improvise his dialogue in the name of authenticity, resulting in a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Other notable film appearances were the Toy Story franchise, the 2003 remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Mississippi Burning, and Dead Man Walking.
Outside of film, Ermey lent his voice to a host of animated series, including The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Grim Adventures of Bill & Mandy, and Invader Zim. He did the same for a number of video games, such as Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel and Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex.
From 2002 to 2009, Ermey hosted Mail Call on History Channel, where he answered viewers questions about the military. In 2003, he traveled to Kuwait during the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom to film the Department of Defense’s mail distribution to service personnel.
He also hosted Lock n’ Load with R. Lee Ermey on History Channel, covering the development of different weapon types, and GunnyTime on Outdoor Channel.
R. Lee Ermey’s later life and death
Speaking with Entertainment Weekly in 1997, R. Lee Ermey explained that, following his retirement, he “bought a run-down bar and whorehouse in Okinawa.” His fellow servicemen received “honorary memberships” in exchange for helping him renovate the establishment. “I was doing a little black-marketing and the Okinawa FBI got hot on my trail,” he explained. “So I boogied on out to the Philippines.”
It was there he met his wife, Nila, whom he married in 1975. The pair had four children and remained married until his death. Once back in the US, he co-founded Bravery Brewing, located in Lancaster, California.
Despite his retirement, Ermey continued to visit Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego and Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, speaking with recruits. He also conducted morale tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. While at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, he held a USO-type show, during which he put on a comedy routine and portrayed his character of Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann. He held similar shows in Doha, Qatar and Camp Doha, Kuwait City, Kuwait.
Outside of his visits to military installations, he also dedicated his time to veterans’ affairs and charities that benefitted military personnel and their families.
R. Lee Ermey passed away on April 15, 2018, due to complications from pneumonia. He was 74 years old. Just under a year later, in January 2019, his ashes were buried in Section 82 of Arlington National Cemetery. Around 100 loved ones and fans gathered for the ceremony, which included a firing party, a casket team, a bugler, and the folding and presentation of the American flag.