CelebVet: Ronald Lee Ermey, Actor and Marine

Lee Ermey

Many of us know Ronald Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in the action classic Full Metal Jacket, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor. However, far fewer know that Ermey was first a United States Marine Corps Staff Sergeant before his acting career.

Ermey addresses Marines and Sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima for a Morale, Welfare and Recreation event for deployed troops during the holiday season in 2008.
Ermey addresses Marines and Sailors aboard the amphibious
assault ship USS Iwo Jima for a Morale, Welfare and Recreation
event for deployed troops during the holiday season in 2008. ​​​​​​

Ermey was born in Emporia, Kansas on March 24th, 1944 and raised alongside five brothers on a farm outside of Kansas City. In his teens, he often got in trouble and was arrested twice for "criminal mischief" by age 17. Following his second arrest, a judge gave him a choice between joining the military or going to jail.

True to his rebellious form, Ermey chose the Marines instead of the Navy where his Dad served. In 1961, he enlisted, entered and completed boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in San Diego, California.

"There's a Marine standing in full dress blues and I just looked at him and I thought 'Oh boy, hey.' If these guys wear a uniform like that, they couldn't do too much work. This is something I should look into. I assumed incorrectly," he said with a smile in an ABC News interview.

Ermey quickly fell in love with the Marines, no matter the uniform. During his first few years, he served in the aviation support field, before becoming a drill instructor from 1965-1967 in India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion in San Diego. He then served in Marine Wing Support Group 17 at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Japan. By 1968, he was ordered to Vietnam with MWSG-17 and spent 14 months in-country. The remainder of his service was in Okinawa where he was promoted to Staff Sergeant. In 1972, with several injuries incurred during his service, Ermey was medically discharged.

"The hardest part about being retired out of the Marine Corps was to find myself standing outside the gate in San Diego with nothing but a green sea bag. The toughest part of the transition was leaving my friends behind because every friend that I had in the world was back there," he told ABC News.

He soon adapted to civilian life. After he had finished with the military, Ermey was cast in his first film, while attending the University of Manila in the Philippines. He played a First Air Cavalry chopper pilot in Apocalypse Now, doubling as a technical advisor to director Francis Ford Coppola. In 1987, Ermey got his big break when he was cast as drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

Following a critically acclaimed performance in Full Metal Jacket, Ermey appeared in a host of films that included Purple Hearts, Mississippi Burning, The Siege of Firebase

Gloria, Dead Man Walking, Seven, Fletch Lives, Leaving Las Vegas, Prefontaine, Saving Silverman, Mandy of the House, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He has also lent his voice to The Grime Adventures of Billy and Mandy, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Roughnecks, and X-Men 3.

In addition to movies, many fans know Ermey for his role on the History Channel program Mail Call.

Ermey filmed part of an episode for another recent TV show he hosted, called “Lock and Load,” with the 1st Tank Battalion of the Marines.
Ermey filmed part of an episode for another recent TV show he hosted,
​​​​called “Lock and Load,” with the 1st Tank Battalion of the Marines.

On May 17, 2002, Ermey received an honorary post-service promotion to Gunnery Sergeant from the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James L. Jones in recognition of his continuing support of Americans in military service. Ermey has also conducted morale tours visiting United States troops at Al Kut, Iraq and Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

Although he is primarily known for his acting, Ermey is a decorated veteran with military awards that include: Combat Action Ribbon, Meritorious Unit Commendation, Good Conduct Medal with Two 3/16 bronze stars, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with one 3/16 silver star, Marine Corps Drill Instructor Ribbon, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 Device, Rifle Marksman Badge, and Pistol Sharpshooter Badge.

Ronald Lee Ermey is a true American legend. When asked about his work with the military, Ermey said, “For me, it's an honor for the military to ask me to go to Iraq, Afghanistan, or GITMO. I'm happy to go.”

Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps

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