Looking through our history, there are many famous veterans that everyone knows by name. Here are a few that you may not have known about.
Clint Eastwood is famous for being a brilliant actor, with his best-known role being Dirty Harry. What many people may not know, though, is that Eastwood was drafted into the Army in 1951 during the Korean War.
Military Machine reports: “While his service consisted mostly of relative easy roles such as lifeguard at Fort Ord in northern California, he did have at least one real scare during his service. He was a passenger on a Douglas AD bomber that crashed 2 or 3 miles away from shore at Point Reyes, California. He and the pilot swam the few miles to safety with the help of a life raft.”
Legendary actor and fighter Chuck Norris served as a police airman on base in South Korea. After enlisting in 1958, Norris learned martial arts in South Korea as a way to help him arrest disorderly’s without the use of a weapon. He was discharged in 1962.
Bea Arthur, best known for her roles in Maude and The Golden Girls, was a truck driver in the Marine Corps. She was one of the first members of the Women’s Reserve, and was also a typist.
Born in south Los Angeles as Tracy Marrow, Ice-T is now famous as a rapper and an actor on Law and Order: SVU.
Struggling to support his girlfriend and daughter, Ice-T decided to join the military, enlisting in 1979 just after graduating high school and serving as a squad leader in Schofield Barracks.
“When I had my daughter I was like, man, I’m going to go to jail, I got to do something, and I went to an enlistment office. Next thing you know, I’m in the military, four years infantry,” he said.
Ice-T used his time in the Army to build financial stability, hone his skills, and launch a career in the entertainment industry.
Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson enlisted in the Air Force after leaving high school in 1950, but was only a member for nine months. Nelson was medically discharged because of back problems.
Steve McQueen was a bad boy on-screen and off-screen, famous for his roles in The Sand Pebbles, The Cincinnati Kid, Love With The Proper Stranger, The Getaway, Magnificent Seven and many others. After a rough childhood, McQueen joined the Marines in 1947. His troublesome personality led him to be demoted to Private seven separate times, and even led to spending 41 days in the brig for resisting arrest after failing to report for duty.
After all of the trouble, McQueen ended up turning his mindset around and using the discipline for good. He saved several of his fellow Marines’ lives in the Arctic when a tank began sinking through the ice. After that heroic act, he was assigned to guard Harry S. Truman’s presidential yacht, eventually receiving an honorable discharge in 1950.
Lawrence Tureaud, known to the world as the actor and wrestler Mr. T, enlisted in the Military Police Corps of the U.S. Army in 1975. In November 1975 his drill sergeant awarded him letter of recommendation, and in a cycle of six thousand troops he was elected “Top Trainee of the Cycle” and promoted to Squad Leader.
According to reporting from Military Machine, “Once, in 1976, to punish Mr. T – a sergeant told him to start chopping down trees in the woods at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. After three and a half hours, a major noticed how many trees were felled and ordered Mr. T to stop. He chopped down over 70 trees in three and a half hours. He went on to become a high-profile bouncer and bodyguard, actor, and wrestler.”
Morgan Freeman, one of the most beloved actors in all of Hollywood, turned down a partial scholarship for acting, instead choosing to join the Air Force.
“I joined the Air Force. I took to it immediately when I arrived there,” Freeman said. “I did three years, eight months, and ten days in all, but it took me a year and a half to get disabused of my romantic notions about it.”
He served as a radar technician from 1955 to 1959, rising to the rank of Airman 1st Class.
Music legend Johnny Cash enlisted in the Air Force at 18 years old on July 7, 1950, at the start of the Korean War. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both in San Antonio, Texas, Cash was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the Air Force Security Service at Landsberg, West Germany.
Military Machine reports: “Legend has it that while transcribing Soviet morse code, Cash picked up on the news of the death of Joseph Stalin. He was the first American to know about Stalin’s death.”
Elvis Presley, known as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was drafted in to military service in 1958, four years into his music career. While he had already achieved fame and fortune, Presley wanted to prove to the American public and himself that he had what it takes to stick out his military service, rather than taking the easy way out that many celebrities were offered.
His fellow soldiers commended his ability to work hard and fit in with the other soldiers regardless of his celebrity status. Many praised him for his generosity, as he bought tv sets for camps and extra fatigues for men in his squadron. Presley received an honorable discharge in 1960.
The soft-spoken painter, art instructor, and television host Bob Ross was a 1st sergeant in the Air Force, serving for 20 years in a job that he says “requires you to be a mean, tough person.”
“I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work,” Ross said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel in 1990. “And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way any more.”
According to the Sentinel, after Ross retired from the military in 1981, he vowed never to scream again.
Famous for her role as Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, who was also crowned Miss Israel at age 18 in 2004, served in the Israeli Defense Force as a combat instructor for two years. After leaving the Israeli military, she studied law and international relations at a university in Israel while building her acting career.
Born in Seattle, Washington as Johnny Alex Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix is one of the most legendary guitar players of all time, despite only having a four-year professional career. Before becoming famous, he was caught riding around in stolen cars twice and given an ultimatum: prison or the Army.
According to Military Machine, “Hendrix had an up-and-down career in the Army as a paratrooper. He entered in 1961 and was honorably discharged in 1962.”
According to Military Machine, world-famous comedian George Carlin’s time in the Air Force was “short, rocky, and doesn’t contain a lot of public details… He enlisted in the Air Force in 1954 to get some easy money which he put toward broadcasting school. He utilized his time in the Air Force by operating the radio station on base – which he then launched into a successful comedy career one he was discharged from the Air Force.”
Bob Barker, famous for hosting the gameshow The Price Is Right, joined the Navy Reserve in 1943 during World War II to train as a fighter pilot, though he did not end up serving in active duty.
Tom Selleck, famous for his role as “Thomas Magnum” on the 1980s television series Magnum, P.I., joined the California National Guard in the 160th infantry regiment. He served from 1967 to 1973.
“I am a veteran, I’m proud of it,” Selleck said. “I was a sergeant in the U.S. Army infantry, National Guard, Vietnam era. We’re all brothers and sisters in that sense.”
Astronauts & Military Figures
Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first two men to ever walk on the moon, but many people don’t know that Aldrin was also one of the first men to ever join the Air Force. After graduating towards the top of his class from West Point in 1947, he was given the opportunity to choose where he served – and he chose the Air Force, right at the time when the separate division of the Air Force was being formed.
Aldrin was commissioned as a second lieutenant and trained in T-6 Texans at Bartow Air Base in Florida.
Eileen Collins is a former military instructor and test pilot, and is also the first female pilot and first female commander of a Space Shuttle. She graduated flight school at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, and remained there as an instructor pilot for three years after earning her wings. Collins was admitted to the astronaut program in 1990.
Ann Dunwoody is the first-ever woman to receive four-star general status, which she earned in 2008. She joined the Army in 1975, after spending years bouncing around from the United States to Belgium and Germany as a child of an Army officer father. Dunwoody retired from the military in 2012.
Chief Specialist Robert William (“Bob”) Feller was a famous pitcher who played 18 seasons in Major League Baseball for the Cleveland Indians.
“I never have to strain my memory to recall the day I decided to join the Navy,” Feller said. “It was 7 December 1941. I was driving from my home in Van Meter, Iowa, to Chicago to discuss my next contract with the Cleveland Indians, and I heard over the car radio that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. I was angry as hell. I’d spent almost six full seasons in the major leagues by then, with a record of 107 victories and 54 losses, and I had a family- related draft exemption, but I knew right then that I had to answer the call… After four months of naval gunnery school in Newport, Rhode Island, I was assigned to a battleship, the USS Alabama (BB-60), as a gun-captain on a 40-mm antiaircraft mount that had a crew of 24.”
Roger Staubach graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1965.
The USNA website reports:
“As a midshipman, Roger Staubach was named recipient of college football’s top honor, The Heisman Trophy. Staubach graduated from the Naval Academy in 1965 and went on to serve four years of active duty service in the Navy, with one year of overseas duty in Vietnam. Staubach played 11 years of professional football with the Dallas Cowboys and led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1985, his first year of eligibility.”
Jackie Robinson is already famous for being the first African American to play in Major League Baseball, but many people don’t know that he also served in the military. Robinson was drafted in 1942 and assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in January of 1943.
On July 6, 1944, Robinson was arrested and court martialed for refusing to move to the back of an Army bus. He was later acquitted, and was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, to serve as a coach for Army athletics. He was honorably discharged in November of 1944.
Rocky Marciano, the only heavyweight champion to have finished his career undefeated, was the inspiration behind Rocky Balboa in the Rocky movies.
Marciano was drafted into the Army in 1943, and was assigned to the 150th Combat Engineers. He was stationed in Wales, and involved in operations on the English Channel. Marciano first boxed in the Army, beginning with unofficial bouts and working his way up to junior amateur by the time he was discharged in 1947.
George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st President of the United States, was one of the youngest naval aviators in the entire Navy at 19 years old. By 1944, he had flown 58 combat missions. His valiant service in the Navy earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential United Citation, which was awarded to San Jacinto. Former President Bush was honorably discharged in 1945 after Japan surrendered.
Martha McSally was first elected to the House of Representatives in December of 2014, but was later appointed to the Senate as a replacement for John McCain in 2018. She lost her reelection bid in 2019. Before becoming a politician, McSally was the first female Air Force pilot to fly in combat, and also the first female Air Force pilot to command a fighter squadron.
According to reporting from Military.com, “She deployed six times to locations in the Middle East, including Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, where she provided cover for ground troops multiple times, firing hundreds of rounds from the A-10’s iconic Gatling gun. She flew 325 combat hours, earning a Bronze Star and six air medals.”
McSally retired as a colonel after serving in the Air Force from 1988 to 2010.