Famous Veteran: Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson
When musician and actor Kris Kristofferson turned down a teaching position at West Point and left the Army, his family disowned him. (Courtesy photo)

Country music legend and Army veteran Kris Kristofferson has a list of accomplishments so long, it might be faster to list off things he hasn't done.

He was an Army brat and brother to a naval aviator, so it was only natural that Kristofferson would find himself in the military. But his life both before and after the military has been more than interesting; it's downright legendary.

In his younger years, Kristofferson was an accomplished athlete, skilled at rugby and American football. He also was a Golden Gloves amateur boxer. Pretty much anything that required giving or taking a beating, he was up to it.

For anyone who might be thinking he was a dumb young jock turned country star, think again. Kristofferson studied literature at California's Pomona College, where he became a Rhodes Scholar. He carried on his literature studies at Oxford's Merton College, where he continued boxing. Upon graduating from college, he joined the U.S. Army.

Kris Kristofferson: Soldier in the US Army

Joining the Army in 1960, Kristofferson earned his Ranger tab before becoming a helicopter pilot, which was critical in getting his country music career off the ground (more on that later). He reached the rank of captain during his service. In the meantime, he was making music and formed his own band while stationed in Germany.

Kristofferson was offered the prestigious position of teaching literature at West Point in 1965, but turned it down and left the Army. It was a move that caused his family, full of veterans, to disown him. His first wife divorced him four years later, which is some prime country music songwriting fodder.

It was finally time for Kristofferson to focus on music. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked as a janitor and flew helicopters for oil rigs. He also worked in construction and fought forest fires in Alaska, anything he could do to keep focused on the music. It also was good experience from which to draw country music inspiration.

As he turned 30 years old, he was still moonlighting as a janitor in Nashville recording studios, strategically dropping demo tapes onto desks and hoping they would get into the hands of some of the biggest names in country music.

Army Training Lands Him in the History Books ...

... also at Johnny Cash's house. By now, we know Kristofferson learned to fly helicopters in the Army and ran into financial trouble while trying to make it in country music. In a big gamble, he stole a helicopter, flew to Cash's house and landed on the Man in Black's front lawn.

In retrospect, Kristofferson admits he's lucky Cash didn't try to shoot him down with a shotgun. Instead, the icon listened to his demo for "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Cash liked it so much, he recorded it and Kristofferson took the first step toward becoming a country music legend.

Now "lifted from obscurity" (as Kristofferson puts it), he wrote some of his biggest hits, including "Vietnam Blues," "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and "Me and Bobby McGee." Later, he would form The Highwaymen, a country music supergroup composed of himself, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

There are few country music stars that Kristofferson hasn't worked with or influenced during his career, even to this day. His music fame led him to the silver screen, where he appeared in 119 roles, including the "Blade" trilogy, the third remake of "A Star Is Born" and the History Channel miniseries "Texas Rising."

Kristofferson was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and has earned more than 48 Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) country and pop awards. In 2004, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and received the Veteran of the Year Award at the American Veteran Awards in 2011, with fellow country legend and vet Willie Nelson presenting the honor.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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