America, and the NRA, lost a true friend and a staunch defender of freedom with the passing of R. Lee Ermey—an NRA board member and volunteer spokesman for the NRA Freedom Action Foundation—on April 15 from complications of pneumonia. He was 74 years old.
Known as “the Gunny” to friends and fans, Ermey served over a decade in the Marine Corps, including 30 months as a drill instructor during the mid-1960s and a 14 month tour in Vietnam that began in 1968. He additionally served two tours in Okinawa. Ermey was medically retired in 1971 for injuries received during his service.
Although Ermey retired as a Staff Sergeant, he was later recalled to duty, promoted to the rank of Gunnery Sergeant, and then immediately retired again. This honorary promotion marked a first for the Marine Corps and was bestowed in honor of Ermey’s unique role as an ambassador for the Corps, including through his exemplary portrayal of the Marine ethos in film.
After his military career, Ermey found his way to the Philippines, where he went to college on the G.I. Bill to study drama and made some television commercials that called for tough guy actors. Then director Francis Ford Coppola arrived in the Philippines to film “Apocalypse Now,” and Ermey earned a featured role as a helicopter pilot. This launched an acting career that would span more than 60 feature films.
Ermey’s big break, however, came in 1987, when he starred as drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket,” directed by Stanley Kubrick. Originally hired as a technical advisor, Ermey so impressed the famous director during rehearsals that Kubrick used him to replace the actor originally hired for the role and allowed Ermey to write and ad lib his own dialogue.
The result was a character that came to represent the Marine Corps, and particularly drill instructors, for an entire generation of Americans. Hartman was fierce, precise, intense, and unrelenting, all qualities drill instructors hope to impart to their young charges in the brief time they have to prepare them to survive and prevail in the rigors of combat.
Ermey noted during an interview that growing up as one of six brothers on a farm in Emporia, Kansas, made his own experience in boot camp relatively easy. He said his father was a disciplinarian by necessity because of his large family. “We were raised boot camp style,” Ermey recalled. “We had chores. We had to be directly home from school. There was no stopping. There was no lolly-gagging.”
R. Lee Ermey was more than just a celluloid rifleman. While living on the farm, he would go hunting before and after school. As a Marine, he earned Rifle Marksman and Pistol Sharpshooter Badges. Ermey also found time in the midst of his busy filming schedule to compete in CMP National Trophy Matches and NRA High Power events. His favorite rifle was the M1 Garand, the rifle he used during his first four years in the Corps.
Throughout his life, Ermey’s sense of duty to his country never dimmed. He was a spokesman for the Young Marines Youth Organization and made frequent morale-boosting appearances before military and law enforcement audiences. He also made several trips to the Middle East to support U.S. troops in wartime.
In his later life Ermey grew increasingly concerned about the direction of his country. He served on the NRA Board of Directors and was an instrumental figure in the NRA’s successful Trigger the Vote campaign, reprising his Sergeant Hartman persona for a memorable voting registration ad in 2012. Ermey told NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris Cox [JF1] that he counted Charlton Heston as one of his own inspirations.
Like Charlton Heston, Ermey paid a price in Hollywood for his pro-gun politics, as his offers for feature roles would eventually decline as he became more public with his pro-Second Amendment views.
But Gunny remained mission-focused, telling Chris Cox that if his seat on the Board of Directors cost him some popularity in Hollywood, then “bring it on.” He considered himself a political independent and noted, “When it comes to politics and religion, you can’t please everyone.”
That sort of courage and commitment is becoming increasingly rare in today’s world, but R. Lee Ermey’s legacy will endure.
Fair winds and following seas, Gunny Ermey. You will be missed.
[JF1]Link to interview if it’s online.