America and its armed forces lost a national treasure over the weekend. R. Lee Ermey, famous for his portrayal of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, passed away from complications related to pneumonia on April 15th. For a long time, Full Metal Jacket was one of the only war movies I had ever watched, a fact that would frequently be the target of many incredulous looks and more than a few pushups during my own time in Basic Combat Training.
In his honor, I gave the movie another view over the weekend. Times have certainly changed, and a drill instructor seeking to imitate Hartman wholly wouldn’t last very long in that role, let alone leaving it with their rank and pay. Despite that, it’s amazing how much hasn’t changed from his portrayal compared to today’s modern basic training and boot camp. Now, remember I’m not a Marine, so much of the ‘born to kill’ rhetoric rarely surfaced as a part of the Army training program. But discounting that, slapping recruits, the sock party, and notable lack of ground guides while marching, it was nostalgic and familiar. Almost creepily familiar; I know I’ve called out that exact cadence before as both a recruit and as a Sergeant. And I know for sure, especially when I was an overweight recruit failing at pull-ups, I caught the ire of a Drill Sergeant, whose behavior was in no doubt influenced by Ermey’s portrayal.
For those unaware, Ermey wasn’t originally supposed to act in the film: he was hired on as an advisor for authenticity. After a few demo reels, Kubrick saw how that Ermey was the living embodiment of D.I. Hartman and made sure to cast him in the role. The rest is history, and his depiction of a Drill Instructor is now the standard for both fiction and reality alike. His portrayal has done so much for the perception of boot camp that, although he was medically discharged as a staff-sergeant, the Marine Corps bestowed him the rank of Gunnery Sergeant in 2002. After Full Metal Jacket, R. Lee Ermey spent most of his career in television, most famously with his own shows Mail Call and GunnyTime. He worked with Toys for Tots and remained a member of the Marine Corps community up until his death.
Although the change in times is hard to ignore, we can’t help but honor the service of a Marine Combat Veteran that helped bridge the gap in civilian understanding of the military, especially in a time where the United States was still reeling from Vietnam. Modern veterans are generally respected and even revered by the general public. This is not the case in many countries in the world and was certainly not the case in the early 80’s, where the world’s first televised war hurt the military’s image in the public’s eye. At least some of the credit for restoring that image is thanks to Gunny and his frequent media appearances. Rest in peace Gunny.
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