When a former Marine started writing Onion-style stories on the satirical military news site he launched in March, he had little inkling how quickly they would spread.
Five months since he started The Duffel Blog, 28-year-old Sgt. Paul Szoldra, who was honorably discharged from the the Marines in 2010, has duped multiple outlets with his fake newsflashes. One, about the Department of Defense banning TapouT—a mixed martial arts clothing line—inspired a furious blog on Yell Magazine. Another, about the deployment of the new “Inverted Multi-Purpose Ballistic Tomahawk Bayonet” complete with “sharp edge designed for quick chopping motions, a medium sized handle for effective manipulation, and a head which can be unscrewed for storage” had to be retracted from Gawker gadget site Gizmodo. “The problem with the US military is that sometimes their contraptions get so wacky that I can believe anything they say,” wrote Gizmodo contributing editor Jesus Diaz.
“There are a lot of things in the military that you don’t see in the civilian world,” Szoldra told CJR. “We have a lot of insider jokes. I knew there wasn’t anything just for that. The Onion occasionally does a military story, but sometimes they’re a little off.”
Szoldra, who is in his final undergrad year studying entrepreneurship at the University of Tampa, began posting satirical stories on CollegeVeteran.com, which he created to help ex-forces like himself to adjust to college life. When the popularity of the stories started to eclipse the site’s original purpose, he decided to officially separate the two and launched The Duffel Blog on March 9. The Duffel Blog now has almost 15,000 Facebook fans and 1,500 followers on Twitter.
Many of the stories play on the darker side of military life. In one, about a suicide epidemic during suicide prevention briefs, Szoldra links to a real news report on NBC which states that in July, monthly army suicides reached an all-time high. He also links to a genuine report that the army had given millions of dollars to the development of a nasal spray designed to combat suicidal thoughts.
“I think you have to have a dark sense of humor just to survive,” he says. “It’s a way of coping with things beyond your control. Telling jokes or laughing about things you wouldn’t normally laugh at, especially in a combat situation, helps you cope with that kind of stress.”
His second purpose is to use satire as a vehicle for social criticism, he says. Szoldra runs an online forum with the 20 other writers for the site, many of them posting anonymously while still in combat, to share real ideas and frustrations that could be made into funny stories. “At the end of the day, in the military, people complain,” said Szoldra. “We have the benefit of a website where we can publish these complaints in a humorous way so that maybe down the road things change.”
Gina Harkins, a staff writer at Military Times’s imprint, the Marine Times, said that some of their writers were getting caught out by Google Alerts for stories posted on The Duffel Blog. “We were duped!” says Harkins. “Because often those stories border reality. We’ve all seen some headlines and fallen for them a couple of times, until you click on them and see it’s a Duffel Blog.”