With an uncanny ability to cut right to the truth of the current state of military and veteran affairs for the past five years, the military satire website, Duffel Blog, is marking the occasion by releasing a book of its best articles earlier this year titled “Mission Accomplished: The Very Best of Duffel Blog, Volume One.”
Founded by Marine Corps veteran Paul Szoldra, Duffel Blog was originally part of his undergraduate entrepreneurship project at the University of Tampa. He came up with a plan to create a review-style website to help veterans like himself navigate choosing a college.
During research for his site, Szoldra saw that blogs would be helpful for directing people to his content, so one of the blogs he created was Duffel Blog.
“Within a month or so, there were people that were actually checking it out,” he said of his satire work. But people were just coming for the articles and then leaving, not staying to view the rest of his site.
Szoldra eventually split the site into two but ended up putting more of his effort into Duffel Blog when he realized that was what people were drawn to.
According to Szoldra, Duffel Blog’s success was accidental.
“I had no sort of long term plan for doing this big website that millions of veterans are going to love and the future secretary of defense is going to be reading it,” he said. “Had no clue any of this stuff was ever going to happen. It just kind of happened.”
“People love it and sort of rely on it for their daily laughs, that it’s like, now I can’t stop,” he added.
Duffel Blog now has over 100 contributing writers, with a new article going up every day.
“We have writers contributing content from all branches of the military, officer, enlisted, different jobs, way different backgrounds, male, female, you name it, we just have a cross section of the military writing for us. And most of them are anonymous for what would probably be obvious reasons,” he said.
Creating a book for the Duffel Blog site has been something Szoldra has wanted to do for a long time.
“We’ve done other kind of products like shirts and kind of gear and stuff like that,” he said. “But a book seems like the next step where you can have this physical item on your coffee table or throw it in your duffel bag (laughs) and take it on deployment.”
The book also allows newer fans to see some of their older work. Szoldra says they have published over 2000 articles in five years. The book features background content on some of the articles, including the reasoning behind them and real world consequences, that they wanted to share with the fans, he said.
The articles that made the cut
The process for choosing the 100 best articles to go in the book was a combination of favorites picked by Szoldra and a point system for writers to vote on their favorite stories.
The first article in the book, “Tired of ‘Chair Force’ Nickname, Air Force Colonel Bans Chairs,” has meaning for Szoldra and the history of Duffel Blog.
“That was the first article I had ever wrote for the site, first article that was ever published. So that was the one that started it all, that was absolutely necessary to be there,” he said.
Another article that made it is “Pentagon Study Finds Beards Directly Related to Combat Effectiveness.”
“If I remember correctly that was the first one that ever went kind of viral,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that one crashed the site a few time… Just because everybody in the military apparently wants to have a beard.”
The book was dedicated to Ron Gullekson, one of Duffel Blog’s writers who passed away. His article, “Citing OPSEC Fears, DoD Bans Tapout Clothing for All Military Personnel,” was put in the book, including the reactions it received.
Szoldra said he received either an email or a tweet from a public affairs officer “who said that they received at least one call, which was one too many, about whether Tapout clothing was banned from the base.”
Even though the site has been around now for over five years, Szoldra is still surprised that some people do not realize that the site is satire.
“But it’s to this day, I mean we just published an article just today that people are sharing, and they’re like ‘I can’t believe this is real. Are you kidding me?’ and it’s like actually yes, we are kidding you,” he said.
Stories that make you laugh
Running out of stories to write was a fear of Szoldra’s during the start of Duffel Blog.
“Basically, I’m just going to like– there is only so much you can write on military satire that we’re going to run out of jokes, we’re going to run out of ideas. And you know, the writers just continually prove me wrong and just keep coming up with new stuff,” he said.
When it comes to their stories and what they are trying to say to the larger military community, Szoldra says “we’re always trying to make a point, we always have something to say.”
The difference between Duffel Blog and “fake news” sites, Szoldra says, is that the aim for fake news sites is trolling and clicks, whereas Duffel Blog is satire with a message.
Szoldra’s general rule for content published to the site is “as long as it entertains me or I see the point of it or it’s something that I enjoy, then it’s good for the site.”
Making a point or having something to say is also important when they tackle difficult topics such as military suicide or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I come from the stand point of, when it comes to comedy there’s nothing that’s off limits, there’s nothing that you can’t joke about. It’s just about the idea of picking your target correctly and telling the joke in the right way,” Szoldra said.
“There’s a very thin line between joking about something and being tasteless. And joking about something and actually using that joke to highlight a larger issue,” he added.
“We’ve hit topics that are pretty serious. We’ve hit stuff about PTSD, we’ve hit stuff about the issue of veteran suicide. And I have personal experience with friends who have committed suicide like I take that pretty seriously,” Szoldra said. “I don’t take that issue lightly, but you can’t really be a military satire website and just not hit those topics. I think we would be sort of negligent in that regard if we didn’t do some things.”
One example Szoldra gave was a story a few years ago about the Army wanting to use anti-suicide nasal spray for soldiers.
“I was just like, what the heck is this? Because in my mind the issue of suicide, a lot of it comes down to leadership. It takes generals and sergeants major and people to stand up and say, hey, we’ve got your back, and it’s okay to talk to people,” he said. “To not have some sort of stigma when it comes to PTSD and things like that. And so the idea that we could have this cure all for suicide with a nasal spray was just ridiculous.”
The focus of the Duffel Blog article on nasal spray was not to make fun of a soldier who commits suicide, “that would be the wrong target… But we are going to make fun of the leadership that screws it up and thinks that a nasal spray is the right thing to do,” Szoldra said.
“That’s why I say there’s nothing off limits, and there’s a really thin line because we could screw it up and do the other side and be criticized for it, and it would be right to do so,” he added. “But if you go after the leadership in that example, you know it makes sense, and people are like ‘yeah, this is right on. You’re totally right.’”
What’s next for the Duffel Blog
Szoldra has several plans for the website but is keeping it vague. He did say they are “definitely going to ramp up video probably sometime later this year again,” and have more contributed articles uploaded every day.
He also said that he has an idea on a spinoff website of the Duffel Blog.
“I feel bad because I’m really teasing, but I can’t really reveal too much.”
“Mission Accomplished: The Very Best of Duffel Blog, Volume One” is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.