Military history and culture is filled with rumors and myths that have been debunked but are still passed around as true to everyone who joins. Those tales are then passed down to the next generation.
There's nothing wrong with having legends as part of our culture. The fact that these myths endure is indicative of how we feel about our lives, our service and our role in them.
But let's be clear: They aren't true. It's just fun to believe they are. After all, rumors become part of military lore because they could be true.
In the first episode of Military.com's new "Left of Boom" podcast, Managing Editor Hope Hodge Seck sat down Jeff Schogol, who is now a Pentagon reporter for Task & Purpose but was formerly known to readers of Stars & Stripes as "the Rumor Doctor." Together, they discussed the longest-lasting and persistent folklore found in the U.S. military.
Here are a few of those stories.
1. The Base Flagpole Truck
Schogol was surprised to find this military urban legend being taught for Army promotion boards. The story goes that the truck -- the ball at the top of a base flagpole -- contains a razor, a match and a bullet, each with specific instructions for the last soldier to take down the flag in case the base is overrun.
The razor is supposedly to be used to strip the flag from the pole. The match should be used to give the flag its proper retirement before the enemy can give it an improper one. The bullet is to be used in conjunction with a pistol that is supposedly buried four to six paces from the base of the flagpole (the direction of the pistol from the pole changes, which would not be helpful if this myth were real). Once loaded into the pistol, the bullet is then supposed to be inserted into the last soldier's skull by force.
If this sounds like an unbelievable act of weird bravado, that's because it is. It's not true. The Army has said as much. For those needing further proof, take down the flagpole on base and open the truck -- what you're most likely to find is nothing.
2. The 1st Cavalry Division's Unit Patch
Schogol addressed this myth in a 2011 post to Stars & Stripes' Rumor Doctor Blog. The myth is that the 1st Cav disgraced itself in the Korean War so badly, the patch wasn't allowed to be worn inside the United States. The unit redeemed itself during the Vietnam War and is now allowed to return to paradise.
The supposed disgrace came while fighting the Chinese for the first time at Unsan. Part of the unit was cut off from the rest, and supposedly their colors were captured. Read Schogol's full article for a complete debunking, but there are a few glaring omissions in this legend.
First, if China captured a unit's colors, they would have given it to North Korea, who would definitely have claimed it for the world to see, just as they now do with the USS Pueblo. They don't so that, coupled with the unit in question not having its colors at that time, makes for a pretty shaky foundation. Add in that 1st Cav wasn't based in the U.S. until 1965, and you see how they "redeemed" themselves.
3. Getting a Sunburn Is Damaging Government Property
Schogol says that, while this one is mostly rumor, there is an element of truth to it. The rumor implies that any injury or harm you cause yourself as a service member, be it by accident or purposeful, can result in getting charged with damaging or destroying government property -- you.
While Schogol says legal experts believe there's no way to justify this charge, he says his time as a reporter has educated him on the flexibility of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the laws that govern American troops while on active duty.
"There are different spanks for different ranks," Schogol tells Seck. What he means is that different ranks tend to get different punishments for the same offenses -- and the UCMJ allows for that kind of flexibility.
But to the best of his knowledge -- and ours -- this particular charge has never been made.
4. The Taliban Were Training Monkeys to Be Snipers
This myth got its start in a Chinese newspaper, and it was interesting enough for Schogol to reach out and attempt to find the source of the story. When he researched it further, all he could find was a photo of a kind of monkey with a toy gun.
That was the "proof" the Chinese newspaper used to report that the Afghan Taliban were using monkeys against International Security Assistance Forces. A scientist told the reporter that there aren't enough bananas in Afghanistan to train a single monkey to fire a weapon.
5. Basic Training Chow Halls Use Saltpeter
This is a real classic and has probably been around for as long as saltpeter was used to make gunpowder. The legend says that any given branch of service uses saltpeter in its basic training chow halls in order to keep recruits and trainees from feeling procreational urges during training.
No matter how many times this legend gets debunked, it always finds its way back into the lore of the U.S. military. When Schogol asked the Army about it, officials frankly replied that adding saltpeter to food would not only be poisoning new recruits but would be counterproductive.
The truth is that basic military training, by design, is incredibly stressful. The reason troops don't feel the natural urges is because they have many, many other things to think about. The human body places procreation very low on its list of priorities in that situation.
As it should.
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