If you're surfing the Internet and happen to land on The Duffel Blog — it's at duffelblog.com — don't do what the folks at Gizmodo and Yell! did and believe anything you read.
That's because The Duffel Blog, the 5-month-old creation of University of Tampa senior and former Marine Sgt. Paul Szoldra, is a satire site, full of fake news about the military.
The stories — like "Chaos: General James Mattis Announced as Next Commandant of Marine Corps" (complete with an expertly Photoshopped picture of the U.S. Central Command chief with tatted-up arms) — are as outrageously funny as they are outrageously phony.
The site is so popular it's now getting a million page views a month, Szoldra said.
But every so often, someone is duped by the site, which dubs itself as "The American Military's Most Trusted News Source."
Take the case of the "Inverted Multi-Purpose Ballistic Tomahawk Bayonet."
Through the wonders of Photoshop, Szoldra fused an M-16 with a tomahawk and invented a replacement for the traditional bayonet stabbing weapon.
"It was the worst Photoshop ever done," Szoldra said.
But it was good enough to fool Gizmodo, a well-regarded tech journal, which posted a story of its own called "U.S. Army Changing Bayonets For Tomahawks" based on The Duffel Blog piece.
Not to be outdone, Yell! Magazine, created to "dominate the worlds of music, movies, video games, and MMA," posted a piece ripping into "Dr. James Miller, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy." Yell! was mad at Miller for formulating a policy ordering troops not to wear TapouT brand clothing for security reasons.
While there really is a Dr. James Miller but no policy. The story Yell! yelled about was more of The Duffel Blog bunkum.
Szoldra, 28, said he didn't start out to create what is now being called The Onion of the military.
After leaving the Marines in 2010, Szoldra moved to Lakeland and enrolled at the University of Tampa, eventually deciding to seek a major in entrepreneurship. As part of that, in January he came up with CollegeVeteran.com, a website dedicated to helping veterans navigate the often tortuous process of enrolling in college and obtaining financing.
But Szoldra, long a fan of military humor, what with having served and all, began posting satirical blog items to increase traffic. The most notorious centered on MacDill Air Force Base and efforts by then-base commander Col. Lenny Richoux to get rid of all the chairs on base, ostensibly because he was sick of the "Chair Force" chiding.
While there really was a Lenny Richoux, the chair ban was, of course, baloney. But the item became so popular that CollegeVeteran.com was being referred to increasingly as a joke site. So in March, Szoldra created The Duffel Blog, which has more than 12,000 Facebook friends and 1,200 Twitter followers.
"The best satire always has a hint of truth to it," Szoldra said. "I understand why people coming to the site for the first time and reading something, they think, 'Oh, boy, that is screwed up.' "
There is nothing satirical about the recent experience of another Bay-area sarge.
Shortly after noon on June 1, Army Sgt. Robert Blackmore was sitting in the chow hall on Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province, Afghanistan, when there was a loud explosion, followed by a tremendous shockwave.
Unbeknownst to Blackmore, a 2003 graduate of J.W. Mitchell High School in New Port Richey, the blast, which caved in the building's roof, was the beginning of a complex attack on the base by insurgents.
Here's how Blackmore described the attack in an email (our phone call Saturday between Tampa and Khost was nearly unintelligible).
"The initial blast knocked everyone at the table onto the ground," Blackmore wrote.
After shielding his team from falling debris and shrapnel, "My first thought was to get to our weapons in case any local national thought about grabbing them and using them against us."
His second thought was to get to the hardened side of the chow hall until he realized, "We in fact were already on the hardened side and it was destroyed."
The base then began taking small-arms fire from the insurgents, who breached the hole in the perimeter made by the truck bomb.
Blackmore said he crouched behind a concrete wall for cover, where he found a wounded civilian. As the bullets flew, he said, he helped provide care under fire while still bleeding from the cut above his eye when a member of the Quick Reaction Force told him to "provide suppressive fire while he got his rifle." Blackmore kept firing until he was relieved by another member of his team because he wasn't wearing his vest or Kevlar.
On his way back to get his gear, Blackmore helped clear buildings, making sure soldiers were accounted for. After donning his battle gear, a sergeant major posted him at a security position on the main road of the attack with four MPs while a larger team cleared the terminal and flight line.
Blackmore stayed there for about an hour before finally being relieved to get treatment for his eye and concussion from the blast. Two soldiers were killed in the attack and three dozen were seriously injured, according to the Washington Post.
Blackmore was last in New Port Richey in January. He later saw his son, Killian, born in May and is scheduled to return stateside next year.
The Department of Defense last week announced the deaths of nine troops in Afghanistan.
Pfc. Michael R. Demarsico II, of North Adams, Mass., died Aug. 16 in Panjwa'l, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when he encountered an enemy improvised device. Demarsico was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
Staff Sgt. Eric S. Holman, 39, of Evans City, Penn., died Aug. 15 in Ghazni province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when he encountered an enemy improvised explosive device. Holman was assigned to 192nd Ordnance Battalion, 52nd Ordnance Group, 20th Support Command, Fort Bragg, N.C.
Pfc. Andrew J. Keller, 22, of Tigard, Ore., died Aug. 15 in Charkh, Afghanistan, when enemy forces attacked his unit with small-arms fire. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Caserma Ederle, Vicenza, Italy.
Staff Sgt. Scott E. Dickinson, 29, of San Diego, Calif., Cpl. Richard A. Rivera Jr., 20 of Ventura, Calif., and Lance Cpl. Gregory T. Buckley, 21, of Oceanside, N.Y. died Aug. 10 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The Marines were assigned to 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force. The Marines' parent command was 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
This incident is under investigation.
Capt. Matthew P. Manoukian, 29, of Los Altos Hills, Calif., Gunnery Sgt. Ryan Jeschke, 31, of Herndon, Va., and Staff Sgt. Sky R. Mote, 27, of El Dorado, Calif., died Aug. 10 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The Marines were assigned to 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The incident is under investigation.
There have now been 2,074 casualties in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation's longest war.