QUARTZ HILL — Spend 40 or so years in the news business and you learn you never really know where a story will take you.
The story that connected my life to R. Lee Ermey, the thunder-spitting volcano of drill field invective in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” began as a routine interview story. It is only one among thousands of stories about Ermey, but it is something like his Marine Corps ode to the rifle: “There are many like it, but this one is mine.”
Ermey earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, playing a part tailor-made for him. He actually had been a Marine Corps D.I., and the best part of Kubrick’s classic Vietnam War film emerged from Ermey’s tirades that he imported right off “The Grinder,” that notorious death-of-hope drill field at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
Over the years, Ermey would come to share a generous lens into the human condition, life in the military, its promise and perils. In the end, he shared that lens with millions in a global audience. He became the Marine Corps spirit in the flesh.
The day came nearly 18 years ago that I had first contact with this larger-than-life man. It was a sunny afternoon, and the venue for the sit-down and take notes session was Ermey’s amiable ranch property in the part of Quartz Hill where they don’t pave the streets, and fight to keep it that way. The roads there are for the horses.
Sometimes my son, Garrett, would accompany me on a story. In the year 2000, when so much about life before 9/11 was simpler, Garrett pined to go out and be somewhere near the human interest feature assignment that was R. Lee Ermey.
Universally known as “The Gunny,” Ermey had a new venture coming up, a cable TV show titled “Mail Call.” The show, where viewers asked questions about military equipment, weapons and subjects went on to be a great success.
In meeting Ermey, I admonished my teenage son that he was to be present only if he promised not to say a word, and only if Ermey was agreeable.
It turned out Ermey was delighted at my son accompanying me out to get the story.
My son, nearly 20 years later, wrote his own account of this encounter, and he remembered the details down to the wooden Marine Corps plaque, the flag pole for Old Glory, and a small statue of the Virgin Mary, as well as decorations and ornaments along the way to the visit in Ermey’s man cave, his “War Room.”
My teenage son watched, starstruck and awestruck, as Ermey showed him a Marine Corps sabre. Marine Corps drill instructors are the only non-commissioned officers authorized to wear this edged weapon that forms a key element of the Marine Corps’ founding legend.
In addition to a display of swords and memorabilia, Ermey’s sanctum featured a mannequin outfitted in the dress green uniform of Gunnery Sgt. Hartman — the terrorizing D.I. of “Full Metal Jacket,” resplendent with Hartman’s awards, decorations, and stiff-brimmed campaign hat. This is the hat that civilians often mis-identify as a “Smokey Bear” hat. It is not a “Smokey” hat. The hat is an homage to the Marine Corps’ earlier expeditionary days, when landing in a foreign land and securing it by firepower was called a “campaign.”
Ermey shared some about his hard-scrabble youth, how the Marine Corps kept him out of the court’s jurisdiction and set him on a path, and about how he was a “Hollywood Marine,” on several levels. West Coast “boot” recruits, if they succeed and graduate boot camp, are humorously referred to as “Hollywood Marines,” because of our sunny California climes — friendlier than the sand fleas, grime and hard ground of Parris Island, S.C.
By that time, a baker’s dozen of years after “Jacket,” Ermey had made many films, would make many more, and become a TV star, too.
The interview went well. As we were walking out past the flag pole, with Old Glory and a red-and-gold Marine Corps flag lifting in the breeze, Ermey turned to my son and gave a full metal, drill field D.I. bark
“What makes the grass grow?”
My teenage son shouted back “Blood! Blood! Blood! Sir!”
“What are we here to do, ladies?”
“Kill! Kill! Kill! Sir!” my son responded without hesitation.
“You’ll do alright,” Ermey said to him, chuckling. “Now, we know why we’re here.”
How was I ever to know that my son had seen “Full Metal Jacket” maybe a dozen times, and committed most of the D.I.’s rants at “Private Joker” and “Gomer Pyle” and “Snowflake” to memory? I revisited the film, and seeing it again, I quickly understood its appeal to generations of Marines. It was the stuff of the Grail Legend.
The interview captured a golden moment. In that narrow sliver of time in 2000, we were not really at war anywhere, except for a low-intensity air campaign we waged to keep Saddam Hussein in his box. That would change with 9/11, the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, the 3,000 dead.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, my son shouted for me to come downstairs. Still in bathrobe, I spotted the smoke coming out of Tower One, and the second jetliner descending purposefully to hit Tower Two. That act changed life inalterably, for so many of us.
Ermey was my first phone call, while I was still in my bathrobe, reaching for note pad and pen. His response was Marine Corps simple, and direct.
“We’re at war,” he told me. “We’re going to have to go and get those sonsabitches, no ifs, ands, or buts.” That was one of our front-page columns in the Valley Press that fated day.
My son, following his own true North compass, decided to join the Marine Corps, influenced principally by Ermey.
After 9/11, our paths would cross, at a chili cook off, a veterans’ event, a Toys for Tots promotion.
When the Iraq War launched, with the Afghanistan campaign already in its second year, Ermey said to me in a disconsolate tone, “They don’t want us to go, Andy. They say we’re too old. Hell’s bells, we are not too old.”
I agreed with him about that, and said I thought one, or both, of us would wangle a way to get there.
For me, it was not so much that I wanted to go to war, or wage war. I did want to follow the flag and be with the troops. I did want to tell the story of this war because we had a National Guard unit with many of its soldiers from the Antelope Valley, along with Riverside and Sacramento. They would be the first California National Guard unit deployed to the Iraq War. The name “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was not even announced until these citizen soldiers were half-way through deployment training.
I was their embedded reporter, and as prior service, Army paratrooper, it was like going home after a quarter century. And home would be in the cab of a 90-ton truck designed to carry M-1A Abrams tanks. The training, the Guard doggies and me, went on for more than a month. On a pit stop home I asked “Gunny” if he would visit these soldiers — about 190 men, and 30-plus women — before they flew to Kuwait en route to Iraq where statues of Saddam Hussein were being pulled down.
“Let’s go,” Ermey said. And off we went in a rented Mustang.
Officers in command at Camp Roberts were, if anything, more starstruck than the troops. A consummate diplomat, the gunny gifted them with some of his Full Metal Jacket action figures — the G.I. Joe-sized “mini me” of the gunny that would spout his salty drill field sayings at the push of a button (numb nuts!).
Ermey spent the better part of a day with the Guard soldiers of the 1498th Transportation Co. He signed every autograph, raffled action figures, shot t-shirts out of a launcher, and any Marine who had joined the Guard just got misty posing for photographs with him. So did everyone else.
The hell of it was that after we landed in Kuwait, with its gray fog of sand storming through waves of 120-degree heat, the Gunny caught up with us about a week later. He showed up to entertain the troops. When a couple of MPs in the headquarters tent heard about his pending visit, they shouted “The Gunny’s coming! The Gunny’s coming!”
They gushed this while they locked arms in an Irish jig, and danced while reciting the “Full Metal Jacket” D.I. harangue word for word. Yes, they did that.
For Ermey, by then even more famous with his “Mail Call” cable TV show, it was the first of a number of trips he made out to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fifteen years later, I can actually say the Gunny and me were war buddies. What a fortunate association.
That’s what I remember. I remember a man who was fortunate in securing a career as a real-life “Hollywood Marine,” but who was generous with that good fortune, and who would hitch a ride — because he could — half-way around the world to mingle with the troops. It is what Marines, and all their brothers and sisters in the other services, refer to as “having heart.” He was Gunny Hartman. He was “The Gunny,” and we all feel a loss where that hard-charging presence used to be.
So far as I could see, anyone who ever received a handshake, a selfie, a signed hat or book, or action figure thought they were his best friend. And that was an unselfish gift that he gave in return for his good fortune.
As Gunny Hartman said, “You may die, but the Corps will live on forever.” That’s a Gunny legacy for you. “Semper Fi. Do, or Die!”