R. Lee Ermey hosts Sportman Channel's new series 'Saving Private K-9.' (Sportsman Channel)
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Ermey is a Marine veteran who portrayed Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in the movie 'Full Metal Jacket.' (Sportsman Channel)
Long before his iconic role in “Full Metal Jacket,” R. Lee Ermey was just another farm kid in Kansas doing chores with his dog.
His collie mix Tippy faithfully trotted alongside him every frigid winter morning to break up the pond ice so the cattle could have drinking water and then later in the day to herd up the cows for milking.
“It got to the point where, he was so bright, I’d just tell old Tippy to go get them and he’d go do that chore for me,” Ermey says.
So when the Sportsman Channel asked if Ermey would host the reality show “Saving Private K-9,” he jumped at the chance.
“I couldn’t sign the papers quick enough,” Ermey tells OFFduty from his home outside of Los Angeles. “Let’s face it: Americans love their dogs. I’m no different. I’ve got a couple of old mangy mutts hanging around here at my house right now mooching off of me.”
If he has soft spot anywhere, it’s for dogs. Over the years, he’s had as many as six at once, always strays or rescues from shelters.
If you know Ermey, you probably know him best training dogs of a different kind, molding young Marine recruits as drill instructor Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.”
While he was an actual Marine drill instructor in San Diego for three years, it was in Vietnam where he saw firsthand just how smart and hard-working dogs could be in combat. The military deployed some 4,000 working dogs into that war zone, tasking them with everything from scouting missions through the jungle to sniffing out Viet Cong tunnel systems and booby traps.
Although Ermey was medically retired as a staff sergeant after 11 years in the Corps, he was awarded an honorary promotion to Gunny in 2002.
In the wars since then, military working dogs and their handlers have become even more critical to troops downrange and police back home.
That’s why Ermey says the first 12-episode season of “Saving Private K-9” will profile the stories of military and law enforcement working dogs and their handlers.
In one of his favorite episodes, the show reunites one dog-and-handler team years after both were injured in an IED explosion in Afghanistan.
“The dog got medevaced in one direction and he got medevaced in the other direction. He looked for his dog forever and ever,” Ermey says.
“So we’re reuniting this guy and his dog, and I’m interviewing him in the front room of a house and look up and, my God, my camera guy has got tears streaming down his cheeks. My sound guy has a Kleenex, he’s daubing away at his eyes. Everybody in the damn room is bawling. It was all I could do to keep from tearing up.”
Ermey says he hopes the show will put a spotlight not only on the bond between dogs and their handlers, but also lead to real changes in how the canines are retired from service.
“The military had let this dog go and he was in a kennel. Trapped in a little bitty cage, he had lost about 40 pounds, his teeth had all fallen out. If that’s the way we take care of our working dogs when we retire them, shame on us,” says Ermey. “The military and law enforcement need to realize when that old dog is ready for retirement, you don’t just dump it away.”
Ermey says to be sure to keep an eye out for a certain Belgian Malinois in one of the episodes.
The Navy SEAL unit that killed Osama bin Laden is known to have raided his house with a malinois named Cairo by their side.
“We have that dog [for the show]. We can’t say that, but we have that dog,” Ermey says.
He’s cagey with the details, adding only “We’ve done our homework. We’ve got the right dogs in this show, trust me.”
The show premieres May 15, airing Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time.