WASHINGTON -- A man who probably is best known as the Marine drill instructor from the movie "Full Metal Jacket" and as host of the History Channel's "Mail Call" program visited recovering troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here May 12.
"I thought I'd come down and see how they're treating you down here," R. Lee Ermey told one of the patients he visited on the hospital's Ward 68.
A retired Marine gunnery sergeant, Ermey said he retired long ago, but he never left the Marine Corps. "I've been with the Marines for 44 years now," he said.
"Semper Fi!" Ermey said as he greeted Marines and soldiers alike. The Latin term "semper fidelis" means "always faithful" - a philosophy Ermey said he thinks all military members share.
"I've seen all your movies and own the first two seasons of 'Mail Call,' said Army Pfc. Michael Hawkins, an Operation Enduring Freedom soldier recovering here. The National Guard infantryman, who suffered from blast wounds while serving in Afghanistan, insisted on standing despite his wounds, while he spoke to Ermey. They talked about Ermey's recent trip to Afghanistan, where he traveled on patrol with a transportation company. "All the best to you," Ermey said to Hawkins as he shook his hand before heading for the next room.
"You can't stay out of trouble can you?" Ermey asked one soldier who told him this was his second stay at Walter Reed due to injuries he suffered while serving in Iraq.
The gunny asked each patient how long they've been at Walter Reed, and if they planned on staying in the military. Many of them answered without hesitation, "Yes."
Since Walter Reed treats members from all branches of the military, Ermey said he wanted to visit some of the Marines too. The first Marine patient Ermey visited was Sgt. James King, an Operation Iraqi Freedom Marine who lost a leg after injuries he received in Iraq became infected.
"You're luckier than most," Ermey told him. "At least you have a stump left. I've seen guys that lost their leg all the way up to here." He motioned his hand around his hip area. "And that doesn't leave anything to attach a new leg to."
Ermey told the sergeant he'd come to the right place to get fixed up. "There's no question that Walter Reed is the place to go," Ermey said.
King agreed things could be worse. "I plan on hand-cranking in the Marine Corps Marathon and maybe even the New York Marathon," he said. "Hand-cranking" is a term for using a hand-pedaled bicycle.
"I don't think it's a major drawback - you'll be fine," Ermey said as he patted the young Marine on the shoulder. "You get yourself squared away, and we'll see you at the next marathon."
In the next room, Ermey met an officer whose arm had been injured during an improvised explosive device attack. "It's an honor to meet you," Ermey said as he shook the soldier's good hand. The soldier told Ermey the details from a Baghdad mission he was on when he was injured. "I raised my left arm up to stop a kid on a bike who was approaching, and there was an explosion to my left," the soldier told him.
Ermey asked if he was wearing his vest and helmet at the time of the attack, and the soldier said he was. "And I was wearing my ballistic eye protection too," he added.
"All that could have been deadly if you didn't have all your gear on," the gunny assured him.
Before leaving each room, Ermey posed for a photo with each patient and borrowed one of his lines from "Full Metal Jacket." Before the flash went off, he said, "Let me see your war face!"
Knowing how military members value unit coins, Ermey brought a pouch full of his own personal coins to hand out to patients he met. "Our military families need your help at home - R. Lee Ermey," is printed around the edge of the coin. The coin also has one of the gunny's trademark "Mail Call" photos in the center.
"I'm really happy to see the morale and motivation of these young men," Ermey said. "These kids all look great. Every time I come here I'm amazed."
The gunny, who was wounded while serving in Vietnam, said he is amazed at how military medical treatment has advanced over the years. "In my time, if you were shot in the head you were a goner. But I've met guys who've been shot in the head and are doing fine - they're still perfectly intelligent and moving about unhindered. I've even met a patient who was shot through the stomach by a .50-caliber and he lived to tell about it," Ermey said wide-eyed and with a smile. "A .50-caliber," he repeated while demonstrating with his hands the size of a round.
"The treatment they are getting here today is second to none. Obviously you guys are doing the right thing at Walter Reed," Ermey told members of the hospital staff.
(Michael E. Dukes is senior medical writer for the Stripe newspaper at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.)