Famous Veteran: Jimi Hendrix

Army veteran Jimi Hendrix revolutionized music during his relatively short career before he died in 1970.
Army veteran Jimi Hendrix revolutionized music during his relatively short career before he died in 1970. (Courtesy photo)

"When I die, I want people to play my music, go wild and freak out an' do anything they wanna do."
-- Jimi Hendrix

He may have been one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock 'n' roll, known for playing his signature left-handed Stratocaster with his teeth before setting it on fire, but the man who would become known the world over as Jimi Hendrix first cut his teeth as a soldier in the Army -- and didn't exactly set the world on fire.

Brought up in a broken home in Seattle, young James Marshall Hendrix's stint in the Army wasn't necessarily voluntary. He was already honing his guitar skills in 1961 when a run-in with the law over stolen cars led to a choice; he could either spend two years in prison or join the Army. He enlisted on May 31, 1961, and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, where he was stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

As you'd expect, young Private Hendrix's rebellious attitude didn't especially wow his commanding officers; among his many faults, he slept while on duty, required constant supervision and wasn't a particularly good marksman. According to reports, he was a "habitual offender" when it came to missing midnight bed checks and was unable to "carry on an intelligent conversation."

True to his calling, he continued playing guitar while off duty, which didn't endear him with the other men in the barracks, who just wanted a good night's sleep. His constant noodling led one of his commanding officers to comment, "This is one of his faults, because his mind apparently cannot function while performing duties and thinking about his guitar."

Although Hendrix had signed up for three years of service, Capt. Gilbert Batchman had had enough after one year. He made the case for Hendrix to be discharged, as his problems were judged not to be treatable by "hospitalization or counseling."

An alleged ankle injury during a parachute jump gave Hendrix the opportunity to bow out of active duty with an honorable discharge, and he was happy to oblige. It can be said that at least he had the benefit of dental care while in service at Fort Campbell and California's Fort Ord -- care that would come in useful later in his musical career.

Hendrix might not have been a great fit in the U.S. Army, but the military's loss was rock music's gain. A few years after his discharge, he exploded onto the London music scene with his band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, unleashing his first hit single, "Hey Joe."

The rest is history, and three years and three landmark albums later, Hendrix was dead at age 27 in 1970 after an alleged overdose of sleeping pills left him choking on his vomit -- a death that is still partially unexplained even today, with several of his old associates claiming foul play -- but his fiery creativity and groundbreaking work have stood up to the test of time.

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