Szoldra’s trying his hand at real news. He’s interning at Business Insider and working toward a master’s degree in digital journalism at the University of South Florida — St. Petersburg.
Barely a year after posting its first fake news story, The Duffel Blog has become a household name among troops.
There’s even a hashtag on Twitter labeled “#should havebeenDuffelBlog,” which readers use to tag strange or unbelievable real news stories they would have expected to come from their favorite satirical military news site. And civilians are catching on, too.
Former Marine Sgt. Paul Szoldra, the site’s creator, has been featured in stories by The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio.
In November, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote to officials at the Pentagon asking them to check into a report that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were going to start receiving Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits. But that “report” was from The Duffel Blog.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘I was in Military Times or The Wall Street Journal,’ ” Szoldra said. “But to know a senator wrote a letter ... so The Duffel Blog is in the congressional record of the United States — I mean, to think about that is amazing to me, and I think funny as hell.”
Szoldra dropped by the Military Times newsroom to chat about life at The Duffel Blog.
Q. You make fun of them all, but which service is the funniest?
A. I think Marines are the easiest, with the stringent rules and the way we talk with the “errs” and “devil dogs.” We have the most animated higher-ups, too. There are sergeants major and gunnies with the most ridiculous looking haircuts, like the horseshoe — who thought that was a good idea? Then it gets banned and they’re outraged like, “Let me have my look.” The Air Force is also just really easy to make fun of because if you’re not in it, you’re so jealous. At least from an outsider, they practically have room service. I bet they do, actually. Investigate that.
Q. What’s the highest rank of the service members who contribute to the blog?
A. Everybody wants this, but I won’t give it up. Funny thing is, I could actually say, “I have a three-star. He’s a great guy, and he works with the lance corporals to write really funny stories.” Then you’d probably go to the Pentagon and say, “Hey, there’s a three-star writing for The Duffel Blog?” Then Pentagon public affairs would flip out, saying, “Oh my God, what three-star is it?” They’d probably be jumping through hoops. So long story short: I have a three-star writing for me.
Q. What is the best thing that has happened since you launched The Duffel Blog?
A. I think the best was getting an email from Gen. James Mattis. I told him we wrote the story about him becoming commandant because Marines wish he was. I said it was an honor to serve in the same Corps as him. He wrote back and said the reason he stayed in for 40 years was because of young patriotic Americans like me giving their all and doing their best for the country. I can’t believe a guy who was in the Corps for 40 years thanked me for my service, but he’s that leader. And now if someone doesn’t like my site, I can say, “Well, General Mattis does.”
Q. Do you feel like you’re breaking down barriers between the branches and getting troops in other services to understand each other?
A. I do. When you’re in, you’re stuck in that tiny subset, and you don’t get much exposure to anything else if you’re not in a giant command. A lot of the contributors didn’t even know who Gen. Mattis was when we started doing stories about him. And I think we’re showing that the humor and circumstances in the military transcend the branches. I get emails from Vietnam or Korean War vets, and it’s amazing that someone who served 40 years ago still gets stuff that we’re writing now.
Q. What topics aren’t considered fair game for satire? Is there anything you guys won’t touch?
A. If there’s a firefight somewhere, we’ll never do a story about people being killed there. Everything else is open. I take criticism from people who don’t get satire for touching hot-button issues. I’m fine with it. Military suicide is not funny, but the response to it has been really crappy. So I wrote an article about how people were killing themselves during the PowerPoint briefs because they were so awful. I got flack, but I wasn’t making fun of suicide. I was making fun of leadership and the response to it. With an issue like that, we make sure it serves an end.