R.I.P., Gunny

R. Lee Ermey, who has died at age 74, was a national treasure. He gained undying fame as U. S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s film, Full Metal Jacket (1987). Nine years later, Alan Bennett watched the movie and wrote in his diary, later published in Untold Stories (2005), “It’s remarkable chiefly for the language of the Marine instructor, a wonderfully written and terrible part, which takes language into areas certainly undescribed in 1987, . . . and not often since.”

Hartman’s, and Ermey’s, way with words keeps them from being printed in all religious, and most secular, venues.  Still, taking profanity into the realm of poetry was not being vulgar for its own sake.  Ermey spent eleven years in the U. S. Marines, part of that time as a drill instructor, and he re-wrote Hartman’s lines based upon his own experience of having a limited amount of time for whipping eighteen and nineteen year-old draftees into fighting shape.

Whether in his work with the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program or as spokesman for Glock firearms or Tru-Spec gear, Ermey became known simply as “the Gunny,” or more often just “Gunny.”  In 1972 he retired as a staff sergeant after injuring his shoulder in Vietnam, but in 2002 the Commandant of the Marine Corps recognized Ermey’s ongoing and loyal support of the Marines by making him an honorary gunnery sergeant.

After the success and acclaim of Full Metal Jacket, Ermey’s shrewdness and sense of humor allowed him to make a career tapping into Sergeant Hartman’s character, sometimes, critics thought, to the point of self-parody.  As a character actor, he staked out realistic territory for himself:  His film and television roles ranged from Marines to sheriffs, from a blacksmith to the voice of a green plastic soldier in Toy Story.

In 2010, Ermey appeared in a television advertisement for Geico, and the variation on the company’s opening rhetorical question was, “Can switching to Geico really save you 15% or more on car insurance?  Does a former drill sergeant make a terrible therapist?”  Next we see a young man on the psychologist’s couch as he concludes a personal story, “‘And that’s why yellow makes me sad, I think’.” Ermey’s verbally explosive reaction culminates with calling the patient a “crybaby.”

For those of us who grew up around men who had been in the military, Ermey’s style of therapy seems thoroughly familiar and perfectly understandable.  While the precise vocabulary used by Hartman and Ermey (as implied above, after a time, they became publicly interchangeable) might not have been deployed, versions of it sufficed to convey clearly and emphatically various life lessons.  Growing up in such an environment let one know where one stood, and one rarely made the same mistake twice.

While still trading on his crusty persona, Ermey could lower his voice and use words of more than four letters.  Late in life, he became a history instructor, appearing in two series on the History Channel, Mail Call (2002-2009) and Lock n’ Load (2009).  In each series he visited battlefields and military bases and explained the function and development of a wide variety of weapons, from Samurai swords to the Jeep, from medieval longbows to modern attack helicopters.  Both series became available on DVD, and from Mail Call Ermey and his assistants culled dozens of topics into a handy book of the same name.

In 2013 Ermey distilled his wisdom in another book, Gunny’s Rules.  It combined autobiographical anecdotes with cultural and political perspectives best summed up by saying that one of his friends he liked to go shooting with was Donald Trump, Jr.  Gunny’s Rules also offered unambiguous insights on personal responsibility, self-discipline, and leadership.  Ermey was aware that “some people just work and perform better when following orders instead of giving them,” and so not everyone is cut out to lead.  Ermey admired someone for whom “giving your 120 percent in your current job, in which you feel comfortable and competent, brings you self-worth, happiness, respect, and fulfillment.”

Nevertheless, Ermey believed that leaders evolve; according to him, no one is a “born leader.”  Someone’s innate qualities can be cultivated, he wrote, but doing so takes time and the discerning eye of other leaders.  In Full Metal Jacket, Sergeant Hartman asked Private Joker if he believed in the Virgin Mary.  When the private said no and stuck to his answer, despite duress from his sergeant, Hartman saw in him the makings of a squad leader:  “He’s got guts,” Hartman explained, “and guts is enough.”

A Marine drill instructor invoking the Virgin Mary opens one to see Ermey’s approach complementing guidance from a great saint of the twentieth century.  In The Way, Saint Josemaría Escrivá exhorted his reader, presumably a young male, Esto vir!, “Be a man!”  It is not far-fetched to imagine Ermey concurring, and then to see Ermey sharing Saint Josemaría’s preference for “a rough, wrought-iron figure of Christ to those colored, plaster statues that look as if they were made of sugar candy.”

Like Ermey, Saint Josemaría could be laconic, but he noted occasions requiring blunt speech and even salty verbiage.  When stuck in bad company whose heckling of Christian values cannot be deflected by politeness or prayer, Saint Josemaría recommended what he called “the strong language apostolate,” and added, “When I see you, I’ll tell you—privately—some useful expressions.”  Such useful expressions can also be learned from Ermey.

Both The Way and Gunny’s Rules serve as resources for someone who is expected to fill the role of father figure.  Needless to say, whereas Saint Josemaría encouraged strength of character in order to grow in holiness, Ermey encouraged it in order to grow up and avoid a “major malfunction.”  For modern Christians, these books can go together in much the same way that medieval monks would put side by side Saint Benedict’s Rule and Seneca’s Letters.

Strengthened by no-nonsense Stoic virtues, it was an eventful life for R. Lee Ermey, from a farm in Kansas to the jungles of Vietnam to the movie studios of Hollywood.  In an interview in the July, 2014, issue of Guns & Ammo, Ermey said he had few regrets.  As an example, he said he wished he had quit smoking cigarettes sooner, but in a whimsical reference to reincarnation, he quipped, “When I die, I want to come back as me.”


Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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