By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
We have lost two icons this week, Marine Staff Sergeant and honorary Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey, and U.S. Army Major General Michael D. Healy. Ermey served in Vietnam and Okinawa, and became famous for galvanizing the stereotype of the insult-pitching drill sergeant in movies, while General Healy was the oldest member of the U.S. Special Forces community when he retired in 1981.
Ermey was the man who made one line so famous that it gets quoted in completely unrelated movie and TV shows. He appeared in Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Mail Call, and various commercials. After slinging out verbal assaults that would melt any snowflake, he screams out, “What is your major malfunction…” and truly all that ever came out of Gunny’s mouth in that movie is not printable by anyone’s standards. He actually practiced for that role by having tennis balls hurled at his head in rapid fire, so that he could verbally filet his recruits without flinching. He was not supposed to get the role in Jacket, but came up with about 150 pages of insults that so impressed Stanley Kubrick, the film’s director, that Stanley took the role from some other guy and gave it to Ermey. He is the only man to be promoted by the Marines after having retired, as he received the “Gunnery Sgt.” distinction in 2002 due to his support of not just Marines, but all troops. He died from complications from pneumonia at the age 74.
While Gunny did a bang-up job of seeming like the consummate jerk in the movies, those who knew him well described him as being a family man who was actually quite gentle. When I was in Iraq, the Armed Forces Network featured him on Mail Call, and we loved him. He also did programs for the History Channel, and hearing that gravelly barking voice after I got home from the Great Sandbox was an odd source of comfort. I guess he could never completely cover the kindness. It showed up in his eyes, and that Kansas boy made me smile in spite of himself.
By contrast, 91-year-old “Iron Mike,” which was the nickname for Major General Healey, was so tough that he was the inspiration for John Wayne’s character, Col. Iron Mike Kirby in The Green Berets, which came out about the same time I got involved in protesting the Vietnam War. On purpose, I did not see that film for a very long time, as it would have upended my image of “soldiers as lesser life forms and baby killers.” When I finally did see it, I was glad that my former concepts finally had been creamed by my experience in Iraq, and I could actually enjoy the Iron Mike character because I knew then from experience that “hard men keep us safe and free.” It is said that Healy was “the first one into Vietnam and the last one out.”
In addition, Maj. Gen. Healy served in the Korean War, and eventually became the commanding officer of of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg. He changed how our Special Forces did business, was married for 67 years, raised sons, had grandchildren and great grandchildren, and kept us safe. To the Maj. General and the Gunnery Sgt., I say, “Thank you, God bless you, and rest in peace.”
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner