Former Marine Paul Szoldra first posted a fictional story about an Air Force colonel who banned all chairs on his installation to gain attention for another website he had created to help veterans use their education benefits.
The post intended to poke fun at a common nickname other services have for the Air Force – the Chair Force – the satirical article quickly spread throughout the military ranks. There was soon an outcry for more comic posts by Szoldra, which inspired him to create The Duffel Blog – what many consider a military version of The Onion.
The site has existed for only 5 months and already has over 10,000 fans on Facebook. Recent news coverage crashed their site twice because of increased traffic. The stories are gaining attention, some even mistaken by mainstream websites as real.
Tech site Gizmodo recently fell for the article "DoD Announces New Inverted Multi-Purpose Ballistic Tomahawk Bayonet (IMBTB)" that described in detail the addition of a "tomahawk" attachment to the M-16.
Szoldra said he reacted with "pure shock that they thought it was real. Shock and hilarity, especially since it was the worst photo shop picture I've ever done."
Szoldra, the founder, and originally the sole writer, now has 20 writers contributing to the blog, many of whom currently service in the military and write under pen names to protect their careers.
Some of his favorite stories include one by "Ron" titled "Coast Guard Cutter Capsizes; Dozens Wet" in which a Coast Guard spokesperson is quoted as saying "all crew members were dried off immediately and are recovering at home with their families or at Shooter's Bar and Grill for dollar draft night."
A self-described "smart ass" Szoldra says he learned the art of sarcasm from fellow Marines. The ones who could "smart off" to the first sergeant and be "that guy" while staying out of trouble inspired his sarcastic take on all things military.
Recent stories keeping the troops in stitches include a report that the cast of the NBC reality show "Stars Earn Their Stripes" was killed when put on location in Afghanistan. Another recent story described how a unit commander assigned military wives ranks.
When asked why the site is becoming so popular a Navy officer who often reads The Duffel Blog said service members need a comic escape to the gravity of their jobs.
"I like the idea of a blog being out there keeping us honest but also making us laugh at ourselves. In this day and age, we have to have the ability to laugh at ourselves. The Duffel Blog helps with that," said the Navy officer who asked not to be named since he was not cleared to speak about the blog.
Szoldra's humor, and that of his writers', thinly masks a deeper purpose, and that is advocacy for his fellow service members, and what he sees as a culture of overly sanitized defense information.
He says that satire is not always just funny; it can have greater purpose behind it.
"It's a great tool to be used for social criticism. Take a look at the Army suicides story. There is commentary in there that blasts the culture of the military for not taking the issue seriously," Szoldra said.
He points out how the site showcases how "serious issues take on a level of lunacy." For example, the story "Infantry Waiting for Presidential Approval to Fire" tackled the strict rules of engagement soldiers often complain about in Afghanistan.
"Back in 2004 when I was there, if we felt threatened in any way, we could pull the trigger. Now if you shoot your weapon you have to fight for your life. You're investigated for it. That means you will hesitate," he said. "I can't run to Afghanistan. But I'm doing what I can to bring light to the issue and skewer a situation that is pretty screwed."
The increase in popularity has also increased Szoldra's realization that he is, in some ways, taking on the behemoth that is the Defense Department. He has consulted with an attorney to protect his site and his writers.
The Defense Department is aware of the site, said Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman. Gregory receives stories from The Duffel Blog sent to him by colleagues. Thus far, he has not had anyone contact him who thinks the stories are real and said it's clear the site is humorous and satirical.
Szoldra does more than write for Duffel Blog. He also acts as a spokesperson and is active in the Marine Infantry Veterans Foundation, a non-profit organization that he summarizes as "Marines helping other Marines."
Szoldra isn't sure what happens next for The Duffel Blog. He would like to publish a "100 Best" book at some point, increase traffic, and add more writers. Enrolled in college, Szoldra is working on his degree and hopes one day the blog turns into a self-sustaining career.
In the meantime, he says he and his writers will continue to take jabs at the military machine and write even more stories about the use of reflective safety belts in combat zones.