Left of Boom Episode 2: Top Military Myths Debunked (ft. Jeff Schogol)

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Top Military Myths Debunked (ft. Jeff Schogol)
Left of Boom Episode 2: Top Military Myths Debunked (ft. Jeff Schogol)

Today we're tackling a beloved piece of military culture: the myths, rumors and legends that get passed down from generation to generation of service members, and sometimes are even taught as history -- whether or not they actually happened. To do that, Military.com managing editor Hope Hodge Seck sat down with a colleague and personal friend, who for years was known to readers of Stars and Stripes by another title: The Rumor Doctor.

Jeff Schogol is one of the most beloved faces in the Pentagon press corps. Unless, that is, you're an official behind the lectern in the briefing room and he has a question for you. In his 13 years covering the military, he has reported on military operations in Iraq, Haiti and other locations, and has never shied away from asking the tough questions the public really wants to know. Such as, what will the Space Force anthem be? What's really going on with those Navy UFO videos? And where the heck is the secret fighter pilot bar in the Pentagon? He's now the Pentagon correspondent for Task and Purpose.

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The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:

Hope Hodge Seck 00:01

Welcome back to another episode of Left of Boom. I'm Hope Hodge Seck. Today we're tackling a beloved piece of military culture: the myths, rumors and legends that get passed down from generation to generation of service members, and sometimes are even taught as history -- whether or not they actually happened. To do that, I sat down with a colleague and personal friend, who for years was known to readers of Stars and Stripes by another title: The Rumor Doctor. Jeff Schogol is one of the most beloved faces in the Pentagon press corps. Unless, that is, you're an official behind the lectern in the briefing room and he has a question for you. In his 13 years covering the military, he has reported on military operations in Iraq, Haiti and other locations, and has never shied away from asking the tough questions the public really wants to know. Such as, what will the Space Force anthem be? What's really going on with those Navy UFO videos? And where the heck is the secret fighter pilot bar in the Pentagon? He's now the Pentagon correspondent for Task and Purpose. Jeff, thank you so much for being on the show.

Jeff Schogol 01:08

Thank you very much. I would say I'm not so much beloved as tolerated in the Pentagon press corps, just for your audience.

Hope Hodge Seck 01:17

Well, let's agree to disagree. I first got to know you about a decade ago through your Stars and Stripes column The Rumor Doctor. It was informative and funny, and a lot of what you did was unearthing facts that crushed beloved military myths and legends into the dust. Your job description these days is a lot broader, but you still investigate and debunk a fair amount of military folklore. So how did that first gig come about? How did you become The Rumor Doctor?

Jeff Schogol 01:47

Well, it was almost by accident. We had received at Stars and Stripes a letter to the editor complaining that the Army had changed the phrase "Battle Buddy" to "Warrior Companion." And when I called up the Army, I said, "Why did this happen?" They said, "we didn't make any change like that." And so the first story I wrote was just kind of whimsical, saying no, Battle Buddy has not become Warrior Companion. As a side note, I found out about a year later that this was a joke, that someone had written a mock Army message and it had been taken seriously by the Army, and I heard even Odierno was briefed. But afterwards, my editor at the time decided this would become a recurring column. And the way he announced it to the staff was, he had a whiteboard, and he he drew a figure of a face with a beard and some kind of doctors insignia on it. And the staff said, Wait a minute, that's Schogol. And yes, he said he wanted this to become a permanent item, which I did for more than a year. And it was interesting because I was unaware of the just scope of military lore out there, of myths and legends that are taken as sacrosanct, and the gospel truth which are just complete fabrications. And then of course, there's the constant stream of disinformation, which as we now know, is become such a regular part of life. But I was not lacking for stories.

Hope Hodge Seck 03:33

No doubt. And as you said, some are really sacrosanct. They're part of sort of this treasured mythology of military branches. Have you gotten angry letters and emails for your trouble as you go about getting to the ground truth on these rumors? Oh, yes. One of my earliest It was either a story about how the the the Marine Corps story about the blood stripes, which is a uniform matter, or the origin of the term Devil Dogs had no bearing in reality. I received this one time an email from a Marine. It was glorious in in its profanity, which I will spare your audience. But there was a line in there that said something to the effect of, the next time I'm in the field, I'm going to use Stars and Stripes for toilet paper. Which I think is a really bad idea, because first of all the printers ink does stain, and it will cause a rash. So the joke's on him, I guess. I hope he didn't try it. Was there one particular service that you found had an outsized portion of sort of the the military mythology? So both of those rumors that you just mentioned, were Marine Corps specific. That's right. I think the Marine Corps offered a target-rich environment because as part of recruit training, Marines essentially become PhD doctorates in Marine Corps history from 1775 to the present. By the time they leave, they can name every significant event in the Marine Corps that has ever happened. And the fact that some of what they learn may not have a bearing in reality strikes a nerve, especially because the Marines owe their existence to a high esprit de corps. But there are other services -- the Army, actually from what I had learned, would test NCOson a complete myth that in every flagpole on an Army installation, there was a razor and a match in the in what's called the truck which is the ball at the very top of the flagpole. Just in case the installation was overrun, someone would have to climb up the flagpole, unscrew the truck, use the razor to cut off the flag, use the match to set it on fire. And apparently there was a pistol buried something like four paces from the base, which the soldier would then have to dig up and shoot himself. And I called up the Army and I said, so soldiers have to shoot themselves. No, they do not. The U.S. military has never ordered that. And also, they checked and there was never any specifications in the truck to be hollow so that it could have a match or scissors or anything like that, and implements of destruction. But that was taken as serious that that was part of you know, apparently when you became an NCO, how many paces from the base is the pistol buried and what is in the truck? So these legends have a lot of staying power, clearly. How do you go about getting to the bottom of it? Is it typically as simple as calling somebody? There was a great there's a comedian whose name escapes me. But he talks about ... he had a problem of sleepwalking. And one night he actually jumped out of the second story of his hotel room while sleepwalking. And he talks about going into the hotel lobby, and all the phones are ringing off the hook, because guests are saying that somebody jumped out to their hotel while screaming. And he says, so I said, "Hello," because you have to start somewhere. And that's really good advice. When you're, you know, when you have to ask someone a question about something that sounds completely absurd. Start with Hello. And then just kind of, you know, ease into it and say so, I know this may sound a little strange, but, you know, my understanding is, this is what people believe and what can you say about it. Thankfully, there are several historians within the military, especially the Army, who can say no, this is nonsense, and a lot of the times I would hear as well, you're not the first person to ask about this. There was a widely held belief that the 1st Cavalry Division's unit patch was a sign of shame to signify something from the Korean War. And when I talked to Army historians, they said no, this is not true. In fact, the unit that you're talking about was not in the 1st Cavalry. And yet it just the legend lived on, and they had been asked about it several times. That's amazing. Well, let's talk about some of my favorite military myths and legends and you've already referred to quite a few of them. But the the perennial trope of recruits of various services, being given saltpeter at boot camp as something to basically suppress libido and help them to focus on training. That's absolutely wild and out there and I still hear it in circulation today. So what's the deal with that legend? Oh, it's been going around for, I think, since World War II. And it's funny because after the story broke, I got an email from a concerned girlfriend, who said, You know, I sent my boyfriend pictures at basic training and they're not doing anything. And I just kind of went, well, I'm not a doctor, so I really can't answer that. I can say that, you know, physical exertion will decrease the libido, I'll tell you that. But when I called up the services, they said, giving recruits a substance that they're unaware of counts as poisoning. So they don't do that. It's kind of illegal. But that's, it's been going around since the dawn of time. And that was also one where I had to say, okay, so just checking it does this does this really happen? Amazing. So let's talk about some others and a legend about the Army formerly issuing stress cards to recruits that they could wave in the face of drill instructors who push them too hard. That was a long, complicated drama. Because I first wrote a story about it and said, there are no stress cards. And then somebody sent me a picture of something look like a stress card. And it was kind of a lost in translation moment, which, there was a commission that was looking into the military under the Clinton administration. And they had noted they made some note about stress cards that they could be waved in the face of the drill instructor, or drill sergeant, and say, I'm stressed out. Well, that's not what they were. They were known as blue cards, but they were given to recruits basically saying, if you were feeling overwhelmed talk to the chaplain. It was not a get out of PT card, it was not stop yelling at me card. It was, you know, are you OK? If not, here's your stress level, if you're feeling stressed, talk to the chaplain. But the commission had misinterpreted that, and the fact that these actual cards existed have perpetuated legend. So I wrote a follow-up story, basically saying, here's my doctoral dissertation on stress cards, because it took a lot of research. And I was very happy to see that at the time, the Defense Department had a very good archive of of news briefings and so on. So I was able to find the actual briefing. And the the actual report where this was mentioned and to say that, okay, this is a misunderstanding, but it is, you know, as they there's a term simulacrum, which I used to know what it meant, but it actually applies in this situation, where the copy originates the original. The legends simply will not go away, because people say, "Nope, I, I have this card it proves it." And there's also this desire, I think, from everyone who's going through boot camp or recruit training, to say that it was the toughest possible when I went through it, and ever since then it's been getting easier. And now, you know, recruits have it's so easy that, you know, if they had to go through what I did, they would simply cry. So here's another one that I think Marines also get quizzed on: the blood stripe that appears on the trousers of noncommissioned officers and officers, their dress uniform. What's the story with that? It was fortuitous. I was reading a story about how there at the time, there was no formal regulation that said Marines couldn't put their hands in their pockets, but it kind of fizzled because I told my boss, "Well, they do have gloves," and they said, "Well, if they have gloves that that kind of defeats the purpose." But I got a call from someone who I won't name because he's going on to other things, telling me to look into this blood-stripe myth. And the myth is at the Battle of Chapultepec, which was during the Mexican-American War, so many NCOs were killed taking this Mexican castle that the trousers for NCOs, which is when you become an E-4, have the red stripe along the side to commemorate their sacrifice. And I called the Marine Corps history division. They said yeah, we get asked about this all the time. First of all, there were not, this was not a huge bloodletting you know, no offense to those the actual battle, but the NCO's were not disproportionately casualties. This is what really kind of put salt into the wounds, is that the stripe is actually taken from the Army -- that they adopted something from the Army uniform now to every corporal who got the, you know, the blood stripe and you know, the unofficial ceremonies to get it beat on and to have people punch you, and so you get bruises and you've just got your blood stripe. I'm sorry you had to go through that ritual for something that comes from the Army. But that was the truth. And yes, Marines were extremely, I don't want to say angry, that doesn't capture the emotion. They were not happy with that. They they thought that that was an insult to Corps lore. And it is, it's something that that they have to memorize in recruit training. It's it's one of the stories that makes the Marine Corps separate from the other services. And it turns out there's it's a legend, sadly enough. All right, one more, can troops be punished for damaging government property if they get a sunburn? Well, there's actually a little bit of truth to that. Because since it's come out that, I mean, unfortunately in more serious cases where someone has been assaulted and bled on their uniform and the unsupportive chain of command accused them, charged them with with damaged property. But yeah this particular story came from my boss at the time who I won't name, but he had fallen asleep on the beach and gotten badly sunburned. And his supervisor in the Air Force threatened to to charge him, well, I think you can get non-judicial punishment for destruction of government property, which didn't happen, but this is not actually too far from the truth. At the time I said this is preposterous, it simply cannot happen. Legal experts say that there's nothing that you can justify it. Well that said, I don't want to say it can't happen, because what I've learned since then is, military law's pretty funny and fungible. And there is latitude. And of course, the famous phrase different spanks for different ranks. So in the case of this, the story, I talked to military justice experts who said, No, you cannot be charged for government damaging property if you get a sunburn, you know, you're not government property. It doesn't mean that it hasn't been tried since and may have been successful. I can't say. So is there a favorite myth or legend that you investigated that we haven't talked about so far?

Jeff Schogol 16:41

I mean, it's kind of like asking which of your children are the favorites in their own way, I think the one that has stood the test of time was whether the Taliban were training monkeys and Afghanistan as snipers to attack U.S. troops. This started in, I think it started in a Chinese newspaper. I actually called up the Chinese Embassy about this to ask who their source was. But there was quickly pictures online showing some kind of monkey, I'm not an expert on the species, with what turned out to be a toy gun. And this was the proof that the Taliban were using, were training monkeys to to attack U.S. troops. And I called up the PA, the public affairs officer in Afghanistan, he gave me a wonderful response. You know, just so deadpan about how this is not true. And then I called up a scientist who explained that, you know, the sheer amount of bananas that would have to be used to train monkeys to do this was so incalculable and so that it would defeat the purpose. And you know that was that, because I was working on a serious rumor at the time. It wasn't so much a rumor ... We had heard that, this was on the Obama administration, troops in Afghanistan could not have a round in the chamber when they went outside the wire. OK. We found out that this was not for all troops in Afghanistan. This was a company commander who had told his troops that,and this was in the days of, you know, courageous restraint and not shooting back, and, and General (Stanley) McChrystal. So when I found out what particular unit it was, and I asked the folks in Afghanistan, wouldn't you know, they were quickly allowed to put a round in the chamber. But I was working on that story, and I saw I think it might have been the British press, picked up this story about the monkey snipers and did this story, and I was honored that at the time there was a Taiwanese media outlet that made these, I don't say cartoons, but anime is of stories and that story got turned into an anime.

Hope Hodge Seck 19:13

Unbelievable. And ultimately it was just an unrealistic amount of bananas, and that was what tipped it over into the falsehood territory.

Jeff Schogol 19:24

Well that was part of it and later someone said, Hey, you know the story of the the monkey holding the weapon -- in color you can clearly see that's a toy plastic gun, and the monkey or chimpanzee is on a leash. So know that this is not an 0311 chimpanzee.

Hope Hodge Seck 19:43

I also love that you're one of the few reporters I know who has a Taliban spokesman basically on speed dial you've got somebody over there that you can check in with all these things.

Jeff Schogol 19:55

They get back to me eventually, but yeah, yeah. They send me their statements and I ask them questions and they just repeat what they told me. I mean, I did make one of them a little angry, getting into kind of a Twitter exchange with him when they claim they hadn't suffered any casualties in a U.S. air strike. And I said, Well, here's the video. Can you do a roll call? If you're missing 22 people, then you know. That was awhile ago.

Hope Hodge Seck 20:23

These days, you still find time to investigate legends from time to time. Can we talk about your quest to find the secret fighter pilot bar in the Pentagon? How that came to your attention and how you ultimately, to the satisfaction of many, tracked it down?

Jeff Schogol 20:40

Well, you know, I've heard about the fighter pilot bar before, it was kind of a myth. This I guess this gets back to something I found out that was true. But I received an email from someone saying, Hey, Jeff, do officers in the Pentagon still have bottles at their desk, so when Friday comes around, they have happy hour. And I wrote a fairly vanilla story where they said absolutely not, that tradition of alcohol at the Pentagon went away 40 years ago. So after I wrote that, you know, there was just one line in there about the the mythical fighter pilot bar, which I'd heard about for years. And after the story ran, a colleague who I won't name to protect his identity, he said something to the effect of, Hey, Jeff, you know, there is a fighter pilot bar, and I forget whose idea was to go find it, but he I and someone else would track. I just went, OK. It was a slow day in July. Find it. So we go through this very circuitous route. When I actually saw where it was. It was much closer to where I was sitting than I expected. Going through the bowels of the Pentagon. At one point, I see a sign that says NRO, National Reconnaissance Office, and I said, No, we're not going there. We're looking for some kind of marker. It was potted cactus, I believe. And the cactus has since been removed. friend told me that there was a code for you would walk by the room, you would knock on a certain wall, and then they would let you in. We're walking around and He kind of looks around. He says, Oh, see where that guy went in. That's it. In a rare bout of courage, I walked to the door, and I rang the bell. And my two friends scattered. I mean, it was just, I turned around they were they took off like a shot. And this Air Force officer looks at me and I said, Hi, I'm Jeff with Task and Purpose. I'm here to see it, the fighter pilot bar. Fortunately, the guy had read the story. I said, OK. It was almost as if he expected me and he led me through and I said, OK, this is it. And this is the popcorn maker I've heard so much about that does the popcorn and OK, here's the missiles ... like the descriptions that I'd heard about it fit. Like, I mean, I'm in the place. This is it. This is real. I didn't really stick around very long because It would be weird to, you know, take notes. I said, OK, it's here, I understand. I've seen it, I can verify it. And I quickly retreated. And I think my friends were kind of surprised that I had lived through the experience. You know, kind of like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark where they actually see the face of God. It's like, what you can't see that live. No, I had survived and back and I emailed my boss and I had been working on something else that wasn't very good. And I said, well I found the fighter pilot bar, and it was just a revelation to it was such a breath of fresh air. So okay, I'll write that up. I hear there's also a space bar. People who know where it is are certainly not going to say because you have to have a security clearance to get in there. Whenever I get back to the Pentagon, I will look for it.

Hope Hodge Seck 23:48

Stop the presses. Is this bar that has sprung up with the newly established Space Force, or is this something that has ostensibly existed for some time?

Jeff Schogol 23:59

This is existed for a while, you know, it may get prominence now that Space Force has stood up. But no, there has been a space bar, and I've heard about it before. And then one day I said, Well, I'll find that too. I mean, that's a little dicier because space, of course, is the most classified space. I don't know if they have an armed guard at the door. I doubt it. But I will certainly see if I can look it up to the final frontier.

Hope Hodge Seck 24:30

I hope you do. And I hope that this time you actually get to taste of the sweet nectar on offer behind the bar. It sounds like they did not in fact, offer you a shot of whatever was on the rail at the fighter pilot bar.

Jeff Schogol 24:45

I didn't stick around long enough. I mean, I didn't want to really bother them. I just wanted to say OK, it's here. I see it is everything I expected it to be, and left. I mean, I was kind of hoping there would be a DJ and you know, Skynet would be there, but no.

Hope Hodge Seck 25:01

You still have a desk at the Pentagon. Obviously, we're in strange times now but what is a rumor or a legend or a mysterious spot that you'd still like to get to the bottom of that you haven't had a chance yet?

Jeff Schogol 25:13

Oh, you know, other than the space bar, I'm still writing about UFOs because [it's] been in the news, kind of, it says a lot that you know, the Navy released these videos and kind of shrugged but continued to look into that, because why not? And I'll have to think about that a little bit more to see what other legends and myths to to delve into as they as they arise.

Hope Hodge Seck 25:41

Jeff, it's been a pleasure to have you on. Can you tell our audience where to find you and your work?

Jeff Schogol 25:48

I'm on Task and Purpose which is three words, www.taskandpurpose.com, and find me in my apartment where I have been working for the past nine weeks. In front of my computer, I have put on a lot of weight, one pair of jeans no longer fits.

Hope Hodge Seck 26:08

Jeff, you're doing God's work. Thank you so much, and have a great day.

Jeff Schogol 26:13

Thank you.

Hope Hodge Seck 26:16

Thanks for joining us today on Left of Boom. On this episode, Jeff mentioned Odierno. That's General Ray Odierno, the 30th, Chief of Staff of the Army who retired in 2015. The comedian whose name escaped him, that was the very funny Mike Birbiglia. We'll have new episodes coming soon, so please hit subscribe and let us know what you think about the show in the feedback section. We also want to hear from you about future episodes. Who do you want to hear from and what military hot topics would you like us to tackle next? Let us know by sending us an email at podcast@military.com. And remember to stay up to date on all the news that matters to the military community every day at Military.com.

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