Published March 17, 2017
They've been name-checked by the secretary of defense and started congressional kerfuffles. And now they want to take up space on your coffee table.
Paul Szoldra, a veteran Marine Corps infantryman and founder of military satire news site The Duffel Blog, celebrated the site's recent five-year anniversary by releasing a self-published book, "Mission Accomplished: The Very Best of Duffel Blog" including 100 of contributors' favorite stories -- as well as new insights and behind-the-scenes commentary for fans of the site.
"These are picked by me, by our writers," Szoldra said. "We voted on them; these are the best."
The site has come a long way since Szoldra published the site's first news story, "Tired Of 'Chair Force' Nickname, Air Force Colonel Bans Chairs," on March 4, 2012. Originally a one-man operation with Szoldra at the helm, the site rapidly attracted a following -- and with it, other troops and veterans eager to contribute.
"Eventually it got to the point where I was getting emails all the time, a lot of bad pitches," Szoldra chuckled. "I set standards: submit five headlines, a writing sample, tell me about yourself, to stem the flow and bring in higher-quality writers."
Now, he said, the site has more than 100 contributors, most of whom write under pseudonyms. For those still in uniform, this provides cover for the site's irreverent and edgy headlines, such as "Congressman Calls for Army Basic Training to Match Marine Corps Policy of Killing Some Recruits" and "Champagne Bottle Cracks Littoral Combat Ship's Hull During Christening," to name two recent examples.
Along the way, there have been some dust-ups.
There was that time, Szoldra said, when a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent called him asking for the identity of a contributor; and the episode in late 2012 when then-Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, wrote the Pentagon in response to a Duffel Blog story, demanding to know why prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were receiving Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
But the site has also received a significant amount of high-profile praise. The new book cover features a plaudit from now-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, taken from a 2013 Wall Street Journal feature on the site.
"The lads have a well-tuned sense of humor and convincingly imaginative 'reporting' that bode well for a country that could use some laughs," Mattis, then a recently retired commander of Marine Corps Central Command, told the paper then. "I think the writers know that we need to stop taking ourselves so seriously."
Szoldra said he has coordinated with a Pentagon insider to hand-deliver a signed copy of the book to Mattis' office.
"He graces the cover; it's only fair," Szoldra said. "I really hope a picture will come about."
Szoldra said he wants to see Duffel Blog continue to produce high-quality content, with more video and multimedia content. More books may be forthcoming too, although Szoldra said he can't talk in detail about those plans yet. The future of the site, he said, may be determined by how well the "Mission Accomplished" book does with Duffel Blog readers.
"This is a test run," he said.
The book, available on Amazon.com for $19.99, includes a foreword by Maximilian Uriarte, author of the popular Marine Corps comic strip Terminal Lance.
Szoldra's favorite Duffel Blog story? It was a hard choice for him, but he settled on "Dozens Wet After Coast Guard Cutter Capsizes Off Florida Coast," a short piece that shines with dry humor and absurdism.
It was written by Ron Gullekson, a Navy veteran and early Duffel Blog contributor, who died unexpectedly in 2016, shocking the Duffel Blog community.
"I figured something like this would eventually happen, because it's military people. People deploy, people go to combat," Szoldra said. "But Ron was out [of the military], he was a contractor. You just never know."
The book, Szoldra said, is dedicated to Ron.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.