CAMP PERRY, OHIO – Revered to this day by millions for delivering perhaps the most riveting verbal tirade in war film history as Marine Corps senior drill instructor Sgt Hartman in the 1987 Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket, retired US Marine GySgt R. Lee Ermey remains a hot commodity in the entertainment industry and a popular highpower rifle competitor at Camp Perry.
In addition to his June reprisal as the voice of ‘Sarge’ in Toy Story 3, the 66-year-old Ermey can also be seen daily as a short-fused drill instructor-turned-dispassionate therapist in a witty GEICO insurance television commercial. GEICO liked it so much, they asked him back to record five radio spots. In most of his roles Ermey plays hard-edged authority figures, thanks to his early film work.
While in camp for the 2010 National Matches, Ermey took time away from the firing line in August to share his thoughts about his life experiences, shooting sports and a variety of topics important to him. It was Ermey’s fourth consecutive visit to the National Matches, where he fires in CMP National Trophy Matches and NRA highpower events.
Life on the Farm
Ermey was born in Emporia, Kansas in 1944 and a few years later moved to a small farm about 18 miles west of Kansas City. They lived there until he turned 14. His childhood memories are rich with stories of farm life and hunting with five brothers, each one year apart.
Retired USMC GySgt R. Lee Ermey talks about what it was like to grow up on a Kansas farm, hunting before and after school every day.
“I used to hunt my way to the bus stop on the way to school every morning. It was about a mile to the bus and I used my grandfather's old 12-gauge shotgun. The end of the barrel was paper thin. It was so blown out, heck, I could shoot three ducks at a time,” Ermey exclaimed.
“I would stash my gear, my game and shotgun in a culvert, get on the bus and then hunt my way back home after school. It was a pretty good life out on the farm.
The Gunny reflects on returning to the family farm about 18 miles west of Kansas City only to find they paved it over with a parking lot for the Kansas Speedway.
“They built the Kansas Speedway right on top of my old farm - you know it's always a kid's dream to grow up and leave the farm and go find his wealth, his fame and fortune and come back and buy the family farm. I came back a few years ago to buy the family farm and it's a darned parking lot for the Kansas Speedway and they wouldn't sell it to me!”
Ermey himself is the father of six children, five girls and a boy. He’s been married twice and has three girls and a son from a second marriage to his wife Nila in 1975.
Becoming a Marine
When “Gunny” Ermey was 14, the family moved to the state of Washington and three years later his brotherhood expanded when he joined the Marines in 1961.
An admitted “troublemaker and a bit of a hell-raiser,” Ermey’s military career started somewhat unexpectedly after a couple of appearances in court for juvenile mischief.
“Basically a silver-haired judge, a kindly old judge, looked down at me and said ‘this is the second time I've seen you up here and it looks like we're going to have to do something about this."
“He gave me a choice. He said I could either go into the military - any branch I wanted to go to - or he was going to send me where the sun never shines. And I love sunshine, I don't know about you,” Ermey quipped.
“Actually I went up to join the Navy. My dad was in the Navy and like every kid, I wanted to go into the same service as my dad. So I went to the Navy and they basically didn't need me because I had a juvenile record.
Joining the Marine Corps was as easy as doing 10 pull-ups on a doorframe in an old courthouse in the state of Washington for Ermey. His recruiter said he was just what they were looking for.
“I was walking out of the old courthouse in a town called Toppenish, Washington and thinking I'd have to go to where the sun never shines and I walked past this cardboard standee poster of a Marine in dress blues.
“I had never even heard of the Marine Corps. I was a farm boy. I never even got to town - ever. And so I spotted that poster and I said ‘holy cow.’ You know my thoughts were if they wore a uniform like that, sharp dress blues, they couldn't do a heckuva lot of work. This might be something I'd want to check into,” he explained.
“So I walked into this humble old office with squeaky floors in this hundred-year-old building on the top of the courthouse in Toppenish. The old recruiter, a sergeant E4 was there and he had his feet up on the desk and he was reading a Cracked magazine.
He dropped his magazine on the desk and he said ‘you're a farm boy aren't you? Jump up on that door sill and let me see how many pull ups you can do.’
“So I jumped up there and cranked out about 10 pull ups and he said ‘Yep, there's a bright future for you in the Marine Corps!’
“The next thing I knew I found my young hind-end at 17 on the bus going over to Seattle to the Army induction center and we were off to boot camp the next morning to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.
Unlike “Gomer Pyle,” the nickname of the Private at the center of Sgt Hartman’s ire in Full Metal Jacket, Ermey said he found boot camp relatively uneventful.
“Actually boot camp was easy. My father was more of a disciplinarian than any drill instructor down there that I knew of. He had six boys and when you have six boys, one year apart, you darned sure better be a disciplinarian or they'll make you nuts.
“We were raised boot camp style. We had chores. We had to be directly home from school. There was no stopping. There was no lolly-gagging.
Ermey said there was virtually no difference between the boot camp he attended in 1961 and those of the mid-1960s when he donned the “Montana Peak” campaign cover as a drill instructor for two years in India Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at MCRD San Diego.
He spent eleven years total in the Marine Corps, arriving in Vietnam in 1968, spending 14 months attached to Marine Wing Support Group 17 and two tours in Okinawa. He rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant and was medically retired in 1971for injuries received.
In 2002 Ermey received an honorary promotion to Gunnery Sergeant, the first US Marine in history to be promoted post-service, thanks in large part to his exemplary portrayal of the Marine ethic in film, as a Marine Corps ambassador and patriot.
After his active duty career, and still single, he spent four years in Okinawa, Japan where he owned a few pubs. He said he sold out and moved to the Philippines when some of his friends said moviemakers were looking for technical advisors for Vietnam war films.
Ermey’s cast infiltration strategy, which worked at least three times, including Full Metal Jacket, was to sign on as a technical advisor and then demonstrate to the filmmakers that HE should be playing key roles on film rather than just advising.
He was so convincing that Stanley Kubrick fired the actor originally hired to play Sgt Hartman and the legendary director allowed Ermey to help him rewrite the first half of the film and play the role himself. It garnered Ermey a Boston Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actor of 1987 and earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Ermey the Shooter
The Gunny is and always will be a shooter. It’s something he’s done since childhood and he still gets a glint in his eye talking about what he calls “a grand sport” and one that’s not easy to master.
His favorite rifle? “The M1 Garand,” he says.
“The first rifle I was issued when I went in the Marine Corps was the M1Garand. I used it for four years before they issued me the M14. In Vietnam they were issuing M16s and I elected to hang onto an M1 Carbine.
Ermey takes part in the CMP’s John C. Garand matches at the Eastern Games at Camp Butner, North Carolina, Western Games at Ben Avery in Phoenix, Arizona and CMP National Trophy Matches here and does remarkably well in prone slow fire and rapid fire. At last year’s Western’s, he fired 99 prone slow fire and 99 prone rapid. At this year’s Eastern Games he fired 97 and 97, respectively. In the 2010 National Matches he scored 99 and 98, slow and rapid.
When on the shooting circuit, he hangs with good friend Dennis DeMille, retired standout Marine Corps shooter and general manager of Creedmoor Sports.
“I try to get here every year and now it’s been four years. It’s like hanging out with the guys. The end of the shooting industry I’m in, which is the shooting end, is a pretty small group of people.
An avid shooter, Gunny Ermey describes how positioning himself closer to his scope stand gives him a needed psychological advantage in the standing position. He said seeing the ridged vertical stand in his peripheral vision helps reduce swaying.
“What I like about the shooting sports is the camaraderie. It’s a bunch of great guys. They’re good patriots – they would never burn a flag. They’re grassroots Americans and the most patriotic people I know. They are out here taking advantage of our Second Amendment rights, as well as I am.
“I try to do 10 to 12 matches a year. Dennis and I travel around together. We’ve been to Lodi twice. We shoot Creedmoor east and west. We come here to this shooting match. We shoot matches at Camp Pendleton the last weekend of every month because that’s close to home. Ermey is also a member of Santa Margarita Gun Club.
Since the filming of Full Metal Jacket, Ermey said his entertainment career has been rolling, with few breaks. But one of the breaks he demands is for shooting.
“My career has evolved to the point where I have to fight to have time off and that’s a good way to be. I’ve turned down 15 shows this year, 15 scripts that I said ‘no’ to. There was a time in my career that I used to take any little bone thrown at me because I needed to work. But it’s not that way anymore.”
Unlike most Hollywood celebrities who call attention to themselves at every turn at public events, the Gunny goes unnoticed by most shooters when at Camp Perry. It’s not that he’s avoiding contact – he just takes his shooting seriously and keeps his head in the game when on the firing line.
Ala his GEICO TV commercial - is it a good idea to bug the Gunny when he’s snapping into his custom Creedmoor coat, preparing to send a round downrange with his TUBB 2000? Let’s just not go there.
Off the line he shines, especially in the company of fellow Marines and competitors. You’ll frequently find him on stage during the awards ceremonies and afterwards shaking hands, signing autographs and talking about shooting, hunting and patriotism.
“I love being out here shooting with the guys. I’m not the world’s greatest shooter - oh, I can hit a dog-gone watermelon at forty paces - sure no problem, but some of these guys I’m shooting out here with are world class shooters,” he said.
Message to New Shooters
“What I’d like to stress more than anything is that people who are non-shooters who think they might like to give this a try should buy an M1Garand from CMP and get out here. They can buy one that’s very shootable off the rack for 600 bucks.
“They just need to get over their nervousness – it seems like they’re afraid to come out here because they suspect that everyone out here is a professional shooter that shoots 495’s. The second part is they’re afraid they don’t know the rules. They’ve heard the commands and maybe they’re afraid they’ll screw up.
“I try to explain to everybody I know that the shooters here are the most giving people in the world. All you have to do is come out here and let somebody know that you’re a new guy they will take you under their wing and will not let you screw up,” he said.
“Just come out here and bring your old M1Garand or your ‘14 or whatever you’ve got and we’ll take care of you.”
Ermey says he’s driven to bring more young people into the sport. He’s excited about working for the past seven years with the Young Marines, who have recently begun a marksmanship program.
The Young Marines is a youth education and service program for boys and girls, ages eight through completion of high school. They promote the mental, moral, and physical development of its members and focus on character building, leadership, and a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.
“You see these kids when they first come in when they’re eight years old with long hair and ba“We have gotten the kids started off with air rifles to learn marksmanship and I’d like to see all kids trained in marksmanship and firearms safety.”ggy pants and then see them a year later and my God they’re almost unrecognizable and really squared away,” he said
“We have gotten the kids started off with air rifles to learn marksmanship and I’d like to see all kids trained in marksmanship and firearms safety.”
“I try to explain to moms that are afraid to let their kids go shoot that as far as I’m concerned one of the safest places in America is that firing line. You never hear of anybody getting hurt on the firing line – it just does not happen.
“It’s a heckuva lot more dangerous to drive down the freeway than it is to shoot three strings of fire on the range. Safety has evolved to the point that it’s virtually impossible for anyone to get hurt,” he said.
On the national competitive level, Ermey is enamored with the development of today’s young shooters.
“The youth programs out here are phenomenal. Look at Tyler Rico at 16 years old – a champion already – everybody out here looks up to him and we’re all grown-ups! Or look at the youth teams like the California Grizzlies who come out here and beat the military teams.
“They are mentored and taught safety – even if mom or dad don’t have a firearm in the house, but what if little Bobby goes next door and somebody has neglected to put a firearm away and left it laying on a table? If Bobby’s been educated properly and mentored, he will know gun safety and he won’t get hurt and he won’t hurt anybody else with that gun.
“I think gun safety is just as important as learning how to swim. I think 99 percent of the accidental shootings in this country could have been alleviated with proper education.
Ermey’s passion for the sport drives him to promote competitive shooting whenever he can.
“As I walk up and down the firing line and I look at these old codgers out here - a bunch of old farts over the age of 50, I’m saying in another 10 or 20 years shooting sports are going to go downhill if we don’t add to the sport, so we need to groom these young people to step up and take our place.
“It’s a fantastic, phenomenal sport to get involved with and it’s not an expensive sport to get into.
“You come out here and spend a few bucks on a gun and ammo and you can shoot all dog-gone week. I encourage young people to get involved in the sport and have a good time with it.”
What’s Up Next…
Ermey has been striving to help get the Marine Corps name added to the Department of the Navy, making it the “Department of the Navy and Marine Corps.” At the move’s core is the letter of condolence to the families of fallen Marines, who receive their notice from the Department of the Navy, but the Marine Corps isn’t mentioned until the letter’s closing, Ermey said. He and many Marine supporters would like to see that change.
“I’ve been working on that for a number of years. We’ve passed it with 98 percent of the Congress and now we have to get it through the Senate. Right now 78 percent of the Senate is for it. I say let it go up for a vote and see what happens.
The determined Marine Corps vet has his sights set on getting the Marine Corps name added to the official U.S. Navy name, making it the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps.
“Hopefully this time next year it will be called the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps.
“The Marine Corps has no aspirations of taking over. All they want is honorable mention. A neighbor of mine lost his kid in Iraq and he got a letter from the Department of the Navy and I read all the way down to the bottom before I found out the kid was in the Marine Corps.
“We love our brothers and sisters in the Navy. The Navy provides the Marine Corps with our medics, the Navy Corpsmen, which we dearly love. They go into combat with us. You’ll never find a Marine that has anything bad to say about his Corpsmen.
“Just three words, ‘and Marine Corps,’” he said. For more information about the cause, log onto www.marinecause.com.
On the commercial front, Ermey continues to endorse Glock pistols and is now endorsing “Gunny Approved” knives and tools from SOG Specialty Knives and Tools. His Web site, www.rleeermey.com continues to grow and contains lots of Gunny memorabilia.
In addition to his History Channel show Lock ‘N Load, Ermey said he’s looking forward to filming an outdoors show this fall called Huntin’ With the Judge where he will go elk hunting in the province of Manitoba, Canada.
And About That Name
It’s true that Ermey’s full name is Ronald Lee Ermey. So why does he go by his middle name?
“When I was a kid, everybody called me Ronnie because my name is Ronald. Well, there was this dog-gone comic book called Archie. And there’s a girl in that comic book and her name is Ronnie (Veronica Lodge) and that ticked me off, and I didn’t like that.
Gunny R. Lee Ermey chuckles as he explains why he prefers to use his middle name over his given name Ronald.
“I said it’s a dog-gone girl’s name and I’m not hearing it and you call me Lee. And that was the reason why. I wouldn’t have liked the middle name Sue either,” he chuckled.