In the weeks following my redeployment from the Gulf War, I was riding a wave of good cheer. After the obligatory administrivia that follows any lengthy deployment, I was reunited with my family and enjoying being home. We took the opportunity to host a small reunion of sorts, bringing together family and friends to mark the occasion. The food was great, and the company was even better.

The following morning, I was reading the local paper and was surprised—and more than a little humbled—to see a letter to the editor I’d written months before splashed across the front page. I’d forgotten about the letter, one of three I’d written during spanning Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. This was the last of the three, marking our defeat of Iraqi forces in the 100-hour ground war.

Then I read the by-line: “First Lieutenant Steve Leonard is a tank mechanic in the 101st Airborne Division.” Oof.

I grumbled aloud, something to the effect of, “Where did they get this crap?” My mother didn’t miss a beat: “From me. The newspaper called and that’s what I told them.”

When I asked why, she shrugged it off, explaining that nobody knew what I did—at the time I was a battalion logistics staff officer, or S-4 in Napoleonic terms—and her answer was close enough. “Besides, nobody understands what the military does.”

She wasn’t wrong.


Much of what the military does is shrouded in myth, little of which is based on fact. Where facts are lacking, assumptions fill the gaps. And when the assumptions aren’t challenged, they rise to mythical stature. That’s how we end up with conspiracy theorists ranting about everything from Area 51 to Jade Helm. The less people know, the more they make up.

In a 2020 article, Katie Keller wrote about this phenomenon, briefly highlighting a few of those myths. While her story emphasized some of the common myths surrounding military families, it underscored the wide-held beliefs by many about the armed forces. Many of those beliefs are perpetuated through the (often misleading) narratives that we see conveyed in print and on screen. Over time, those narratives shape public perceptions… and the urban military myths are born.

Contrary to popular belief, our lives do not play out like an episode of Army Wives. The Hurt Locker might have won six Oscars, but it ranks among the worst war movies for a good reason. And don’t even get me started about the military-themed holiday films you see on the Hallmark Channel. It’s like they don’t even try to get the little things right. But when your roll them all together, they’re accepted by the general public as fact.


During the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I came across a group of Army physicians from the reserve component who carried themselves like the doctors from an episode of M*A*S*H. Hawaiian shirts, lawn chairs, a putting green in front of their GP Medium tent. They bought into the myth. There are moments in war that are insanely funny, but it isn’t a sitcom. People who wear Hawaiian shirts make for easy targets. It’s all fun and games until the first enemy mortars land inside the wire. Then reality slaps you in the face.

Such myths are commonplace. Regardless of what your uncle heard, there isn’t a pistol buried six paces from the flagpole at the post headquarters. How many times have you heard that the military provides free housing? Or the 13th hand on the Marine Corps Memorial? Mister Rogers? Not a sniper in the Vietnam War. But those are the classics, and there are several contemporary myths that also need to be busted.

1. We all have PTSD.

Between the media and Hollywood, this is how much of the world sees us. The damaged veteran stereotype sells newspapers and drives viewership. It’s also not true. Most of us lead exceedingly boring, normal lives.

2. We exist in a perpetual state of combat.

Despite what you’re led to believe from all those tearful reunion stories you see on television, not all deployments equate to combat. Most don’t. While some deployments can be dangerous, most are filled with a lot of boredom and very little action.

3. We like to be thanked for our service.

No, we don’t. Most of us just want to be left alone.

4. We’re all “shooters.”

Some people like others to think they are, but most people in uniform rarely fire a weapon, aside from the obligatory annual range time. Repeated negligent discharges during a deployment does not make you a shooter.

5. We’ve seen the dark side.

Few people who’ve seen the brutality of war will talk about it. More often than not, “I’ve seen things” translates to a lot of time spent in a FOB dining facility wondering if the mystery meat they just ate was actually meat at all.

6. We have marriage problems.

While there’s something to be said for the stress military service can put on a marriage, our relationships suffer for the same reasons you see anywhere else.

7. We never see our families.

It’s about choices, just like any other profession. There are people who avoid their families like the plague and use work as an excuse. The military is no different.

8. We join the military because we’re out of options.

The same people who believe this also think the draft is still in place. That whole “go to war or go to jail” thing is just a cadence. Not real.

9. Our spouses are uneducated and unemployed.

I’ve heard this so many times over the years that it borders on idiocracy. One of the drivers behind career portability for spouses is that they are, in fact, educated and want to maintain a career. But… stereotypes.

10. We serve in exotic locations around the world.

If only. Unless you consider Fort Irwin and Minot Air Force Base to be exotic locations, then no. I spent years trying to get to either Hawaii or Alaska and instead enjoyed repeated assignments to Fort Campbell. Nice, but not exactly exotic.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.