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Few people have come to embody the Marine Corps ethos in popular culture more than retired Gunnery Sgt. R. Lee Ermey, who rocketed to fame after a star turn in “Full Metal Jacket,” Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1987 film. Many more movie and television roles, commercial appearances and spokesman gigs and even book deals followed. Civilians love him. Marines love him, more.
Following the release of his newest book “Gunny’s Rules: How to Get Squared Away Like a Marine,” Marine Corps Times had an opportunity to interview the no-nonsense gunny and get his take on the challenges Marines face, including many of today’s hot-button issues.
We talked to the star about women in combat, sexual assault and alcohol abuse, the old Corps versus the new Corps, and new efforts to strengthen standards and discipline across the service.
Here is a sampling of his unique perspective on what the Corps is getting right and where Marines need to “tighten up.”
Q. What do you think of the shift toward mentoring junior Marines rather than relying on traditional hard-nosed discipline?
A. First of all, let me point out the greatest learning tools in the world are, number one, pain and fear. We have trained these young men and women to kill other people — to win wars. They locate, close with and destroy the enemy.
I don’t think the Marine Corps needs to be a kinder, gentler place. I think, if anything, the Marine Corps needs to tighten its young butt back up to where it was 40, 50 years ago. I see young Marines walking down the street with their cover cocked all to one side looking like dirtbags. They are a mess. They are sloppy. I cannot believe we have allowed this to happen. Our NCOs — the backbone of the Marine Corps — corporals and sergeants and staff NCOs need to get back to discipline. Quit trying to make these people your friends. These people are people you go into combat with. You tell them to charge up that hill, get this job done, they have got to do that without questions. They have got to obey your commands. And you cannot expect them to do that if they are your best buddy — if you go on liberty with them.
Q. What is your take on women in combat. Three just passed Infantry Training Battalion?
A. I honestly believe that if a female can rise to the occasion — can pass the qualification to go into a combat situation — I would be hard-pressed to tell her “no, you can’t do that because you are female.” I don’t think that is fair. I don’t think it is diplomatic. I don’t believe it is the way that America operates.
Generally, what the biggest problem is, is we have a tendency to relax standards with the female Marines. I don’t think the female Marines want that. I don’t think they expect that. I think they want to go into combat. I keep hearing that. I’ve been with the Marine Corps for 52 years now, and I have heard that for 52 years.
But, I don’t think it is for every woman Marine. If you stood 10 of them up against a wall, nine out of that 10 probably couldn’t make it through [School of Infantry]. But there is always that one. And why should that one be deprived? If she wants to fight for her country, I think that is an honorable thing. I think we should respect that.
I’m not worried about whether female Marines can hold their own in a combat situation, because I have dealt with a few that I would not want to push my luck with, to tell you the truth. I’m concerned about unit cohesion. There is going to have to be some zero-tolerance sexual harassment rules before we go into this. Because if not, it is going to cause a lot of grief when we put these women in combat.
Q. As Afghanistan winds down, the commandant said he wants to refocus on standards, even in the barracks. What do you think of that?
A. I’m all for it 100 percent. The worst thing that can happen to the Marine Corps is that it gets loose and sloppy, and I have seen us go there. After Vietnam it got really loose and sloppy. It was sloppy for 10, 15 years. [Commandant] Gen. Al Gray came along, and I think he saved the Marine Corps.
When we start downsizing, something happens to the Marine Corps. We lose a good portion of our leadership, and when the leadership is gone there is no discipline. I think the tighter the Marine Corps is, the more effective it is, the better it is. The more control that staff NCOs, senior staff NCOs and officers have, the better off the Marine Corps is. I have always felt that way. If you are going to ask a young man to charge up a hill at a machine gun nest, goddamn it, he’s got to be unwavering, and he’s got to follow those orders without hesitation.
The biggest problem we have had in the past with our Marine Corps is, we graduate that recruit, he goes to SOI and when he leaves SOI to go into the fleet Marine force he is one tight, squared away individual. He or she gets out into the fleet and some of the younger NCOs and staff NCOs seem to want to befriend instead of lead these people. They want to win them over for their friendship. That is not the damn way, and so they become loose.
I mean when an NCO or a staff NCO gives an order to a PFC, I’ve seen the PFC say, “aw come on, man, sarge, I emptied the s--- can last time. Why don’t you find somebody else to empty the trash?” Or, “I swabbed that deck yesterday. How about getting somebody else? How about sharing the workload around here, sarge?” When we become their friends we cannot expect them any longer to work for us.
I’m a firm believer that rifle and personnel inspections are in order. Disciplinary action is to be taken. Damn it, we are the Marine Corps. Now is no time to start slouching just because we are going into a possible peacetime situation here. I speak at a lot of birthday balls every year and that is pretty much my topic this year – the difference between the old Corps and the new Corps. The old Corps was tighter.
Q. Where do you draw the line between teasing that builds camaraderie and hazing?
A. I still pound a lance corporal’s stripes on, but I do it in a civilized manner. There is no malice when I do it. I double my fist up and it’s a little pat on each shoulder. The problem is it gets out of hand. The pinning on of the air wings — that’s another thing that just got totally out of control. That is our staff NCO leadership’s fault.
Q. So the traditions are OK, but not when they go overboard?
A. Yeah, when it gets out of control. We have to have that staff NCO who will step up to the plate and say “enough of that” and quell the disturbance. I’ve seen staff NCOs walk up and take a gigantic swipe at this kid’s shoulder. I mean come on. Even the staff NCO is out of control here. It seems to me like it gets to the point where somebody wants to hurt the individual. Well, that’s not what it is about. It is a welcome aboard thing. It’s a baptismal type situation.
When you baptize somebody you don’t try to f------ drown them.
Q. What do you think of subjecting Marines to surprise breathalyzers twice a year?
A. I do not drink. The reason I do not drink is because I have never been any good at it. If I am not good at something, I don’t like to do it. I am no good at tennis either, so I don’t play that.
I used to go out with the boys, have a couple of beers. But I don’t think our Marines should be overindulging in alcohol. Number one, almost every incident that I was ever involved with in the Marine Corps that caused drama and stress in my life was brought on by f------ alcohol. It is OK to relax in the evening and enjoy a cocktail, but when it becomes more than two or three you have a problem and you need to look into that problem. We are well-disciplined fighting machines. Discipline means we know how to control ourselves.
Like at the birthday balls. It is a time to relax and have fun. No question. But the way I know when to leave is when I start hearing “I love you man.” A young Marine hanging on me saying, “I love you man.” Yeah, OK partner. I love you, too. Adios. I’m going to bed. Good night.
It is a nasty terrible drug. It is a waste of life. It is a waste of money. I go to the birthday balls, out of the thousand people there I can pick that drunk out in a minute. I know his superiors know who the f--- he is, too. If I can spot that guy at the birthday ball, damn it why hasn’t that staff NCO, his supervisor, spotted that. They need to spot it and handle the problem. Boom. Get that problem solved.
Q. Benghazi happened not long ago, so a hot topic is how embassy guards operate. Are things in order?
A. Well, our embassy situation has always been a political situation that had some political drawbacks. It got to the point for a number of years where if you went on embassy duty, you were that picture-perfect postcard Marine and everybody was more concerned about how pretty you were rather than your effectiveness in combat. In this day and age, if you’re in the Middle East and you are at the embassy, man you better be educated and you better have a loaded rifle because at the snap of a finger you find yourself in a Benghazi situation.
I remember back when I was a young Marine, the embassy Marines didn’t even carry live ammo. It has gotten to the point where in the Middle East you better damn sure have some ammo and that rifle better be functional. You better have your battle sights on that baby because that s--- could happen, it could boil over at any time. Benghazi is a prime example of that.
If they would have had an embassy detachment, I don’t think things would have gone down the way they did. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we would have been attacked because they fear us. But, there were no embassy Marines there. The embassy was left unguarded. Where were the embassy Marines? Where was the reactionary force? Where was anything? It was left totally unprotected. I can’t understand where this administration has its head.
The Marine Corps is getting back to being the nation’s 911 force, lightening up and shifting to the Pacific. Are you excited?
A. As far as moving our forces into the Far East, I think it would be a godsend. I think there are Marines praying right now that we would get the hell out of Afghanistan and Kuwait and get the heck off that humungous sand pile and get back somewhere that is civilized. The Pacific, that is where I spent most of my Marine career. Vietnam, Okinawa, the Philippines, Guam. I just don’t know who is going to attack us out there and it is kind of nice to be close to your enemies. I guess we have North Korea. There is China that we should keep an eye on because they are a little bit shady.
Given the manpower drawdown, what is your advice to Marines suddenly back in civilian life?
A. Well, school is a good thought. Education is your ticket to a reasonably good life with a white picket fence — the American dream. But I would discourage them from getting out in this day and age if they can stay in. If it is not an option, my basic thought is go home and get the first damn job you can get your hands onto.
You take the first job that you find and never stop looking for something better until you are satisfied — until you are where you want to be and you are the judge of that. I’m a believer in goal-setting. Never set the goal so high it is unattainable, so you get unmotivated. Set those attainable goals and achieve them as you go through life.■