Born in Emporia, Kansas, Ermey enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1961, after being arrested several times as a teenager. A court judge gave him the choice of the military or jail. He later joked that the Marine Corps "put a screeching halt to my unconventional manner." He spent two years as a drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, and Parris Island, South Carolina from 1965 to 1967. In 1968, Ermey arrived in Vietnam where he served for 14 months with the Marine Wing Support Group 17. He then served two tours of duty in Okinawa, Japan, during which he rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant (E-6) and was medically retired in 1972 for several injuries incurred during his tours. On May 17, 2002 he received an honorary promotion to Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) from Marine Corps Commandant James L. Jones in recognition of his role as Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann in the film Full Metal Jacket.