By Sarah Kemp

The mythology of the military is nothing new, with stories—some truer than others—traveling rapidly through the rumor mill. Now, in the age of social media, military myths, misconceptions and rumors can spread from platoon to battalion in the few seconds it takes to click “Share.”

One soldier’s joke can become a “fact” repeated from Texas to Afghanistan and back in days, hours—even minutes. The already smudged line between myth and fact has become even blurrier.

The most common myths become part of military culture and are the hardest to set straight. The following are military myths, debunked.


Drill sergeants are cruel human beings who take pleasure in their recruits’ pain.

Every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine’s military career begins with boot camp, where they are berated and humiliated into submission, right? Wrong. Modern drill sergeants teach more than just how to be a good troop. They provide physical, mental and emotional guidance.

Army Sergeant 1st Class Mike Griffin said being a drill sergeant was his most fulfilling job. He explained that while they have a reputation of being overbearing and harsh, there is a reason for it.

“Drill sergeants have between eight and 13 weeks to break all of the bad habits formed over the 17 plus years of life,” Griffin said.

Bottom line: The training saves lives on the battlefield and, for Griffin and drill sergeants like him, that’s what it is all about.

Photo credit Air Force photo by Michael Tolzmann

At the obstacle course at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, basic trainees are watched by a military training instructor as they pass over an algae-filled water obstacle on a cable and rope bridge.

Boot camp is extremely difficult. It’s designed for people to fail.

The Department of Defense has a watchful eye on the boot camp attrition rate. From the moment a potential recruit walks into the recruiting office, a great deal of money is invested in seeing them through the process to become a member of the armed forces. The recruit’s success is the military’s success. The most recent statistics available from the DOD are from 2008. The Army’s attrition rate was at 11 percent, Navy’s was 12 percent, Air Force’s was 10 percent and the Marine Corps’ was 10 percent. Almost 90 percent of recruits complete boot camp.


Females have a very limited number of jobs they can perform.

According to a March 2011 report from the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, 99 percent of Air Force positions—officer and enlisted—were open to women, as were 66 percent for Army, 68 percent for Marines, and 88 percent for Navy. However, on January 24, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the end of the direct ground combat exclusion rule for female troops, potentially opening about 237,000 positions to women—184,000 in combat arms professions and 53,000 assignments that were closed based on unit type.

Females face insurmountable hurdles to climb the ranks.

There are more female generals and admirals than there are female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. In a report from the Statistical Information Analysis Division of the DOD, as of September, there were 72 females holding the rank of brigadier general, or rear admiral, and higher. Females made up 7.6 percent of the general/admiral ranks. Comparatively, as of January according to CNN, there were just 21 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies—or 4.2 percent of the companies. The percentage of females in positions of power in the military is almost double that of the civilian world.


Because of budget cuts, all troops in Afghanistan can only eat MREs for breakfast now.

This myth perpetuated by an email forward, started as a small truth that became vastly exaggerated. As a general rule, American troops in Afghanistan can have four meals a day. A few forward operating bases in Paktika province were an exception. According to the American Forces Press Service reporter Jim Garamone, the myth was born from the fact that these few bases were in the process of closing or turning over operations to Afghan security forces and during this transitional time, troops were only offered Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) instead of a hot breakfast.


Dog tags had a notch in them to place between fallen troops’ teeth as identification.

Dog tags date back to the Civil War when soldiers etched their names into belts or on pieces of wood around their neck. In 1913, the Army required all soldiers to wear identification tags, and in 1917 it began issuing the first aluminum discs on chains. Notched dog tags were introduced in World War II and produced until the early 1970s. The notch was essential to hold the tag in place in the engraving machine—not for any specific battlefield use. In the 1970s, technology evolved and older engraving machines were replaced with machines that didn’t require the notch.

When looking at a statue of a soldier riding a horse, the placement of the horse’s hooves indicates how the rider fared in battle.

Rumor has it that if all four hooves are on the ground, the rider was unscathed in battle. One raised hoof indicates he was wounded. If two hooves are raised, he was killed. The myth is a popular one at Gettysburg and among military history enthusiasts. While most of the equestrian statues at Gettysburg seem to follow this code, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s horse has one hoof in the air, even though he survived the battle unscathed.

While Washington, D.C., is home to more than 30 equestrian statues, only 10 follow the code, according to a blog post by retired Army officer and Civil War historian by Mike Nugent.

Photo credit Marine Corps photo

The Marine Corps War Memorial is a sculpture depicting the five Marines and one Navy corpsman who raised the second American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. The statue by Felix de Weldon is based off of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo.

The Iwo Jima Memorial has a 13th hand to symbolize the hand of God.

The United States Marine Corps War Memorial, as it is formally named, depicts five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. John Kelly of The Washington Post interviewed Gunnery Sergeant Thomas W. Miller Jr., a Marine who participated in the battle, about the 13th hand myth. Miller said he was curious about this myth, so he called Felix de Weldon, the memorial’s sculptor, who said, “Thirteen hands? Who needed 13 hands? Twelve were enough.” Miller has written a small 20-page booklet on his research, The Iwo Jima Memorial & the Myth of the 13th Hand.

–Sarah Kemp is a volunteer operations manager at the USO.

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