[Editor's note: This story ran on Military Times web sites on Aug. 14, 2012. It has been reposted following the death of one of the Duffel Blog writers quoted in the piece. Following its publication, Duffel Blog posted a story of its own about the Military Times "hit piece."]
A fake military news site is doing such a good job of lampooning the service, it's already duped some into thinking their "breaking news" is real.
Former Marine Sgt. Paul Szoldra, of Lakeland, Fla., runs "Duffel Blog," the military's equivalent to the satirical newspaper The Onion. He has about 20 writers regularly contributing stories on a volunteer basis from the Navy, Marine Corps and Army.
"I guess airmen just don't have anything to complain about," he said, jokingly referencing the site's lack of Air Force contributors.
The stories are never real and are often ridiculous. But Szoldra, a 28-year-old college senior, and his contributors mimic the look of real news stories very well.
Former Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) 3rd Class Ron Gullekson, 33, made some mixed-martial arts enthusiasts pretty nervous when he wrote a story about a fake Defense Department ban on TapouT apparel for all troops.
"What the hell man, this is ridiculous," one reader commented.
Szoldra said an official at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., received at least one phone call from a worried soldier complaining about the supposed ban on his favorite clothing brand.
"That made my month," said Gullekson, who spent four years in the Navy. "You're doing a good job if you fool a few people."
'Sailors can be kind of vulgar'
Gullekson, who lives in Stuttgart, Germany, started writing for the blog after he saw a story on the site about an Army lieutenant receiving a medal for navigating five kilometers without getting lost. The former sailor wrote for his college newspaper while earning his English degree.
"Sailors can be kind of vulgar, and sometimes we don't realize how vulgar we can be," he said. "I like to place really vulgar stuff in an average setting, so it kind of stands out."
He put that tactic to use in a story about a chief giving a retirement speech. The chief gets so nervous he starts telling a crowd of people very inappropriate stories about his time in Thailand on liberty.
Gullekson writes stories about all branches of the military. As a tech writer for a defense contractor, he works on military installations, so he said he sees new stuff that makes him laugh every day. His dad also retired from the Navy, and he said some things about the military just never change. The key to good stories is to pull universal truths into them.
"I want to make people laugh, first and foremost," he said. "But when you're writing satire, it is grounded in some kind of reality."
That was one of the goals Szoldra explained to his writers starting out — put some truth into the stories. And as fans of The Onion, they have a good model.
"But in some ways, we're doing a better job," Gullekson said. "I read The Onion and it can feel a little corporate. We are more authentic — some of our stuff is a little more real."
Szoldra added that he could tell the military stories in The Onion were written by civilians. He said he knew insiders could do it better.
Szoldra was a mortarman and a combat instructor during his eight years in the Corps. When he got out in 2010 and transitioned to college life at the University of Tampa, he found the change to be a jarring one.
He started a website to help others making the switch from combat zone to classroom called CollegeVeteran.com. In an attempt to boost traffic, Szoldra had the idea to add some fake military news.
So he posted a story about a colonel in the Air Force who was so sick of the "Chair Force" nickname that he banned all chairs on base. The story was a hit, but he was worried people would think his college veterans site was a joke, so he separated the two; in March, "Duffel Blog" was born.
About five months later, the blog has more than 8,000 fans on Facebook and about 1,200 Twitter followers.