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Three Actual Military Colonels Debate Colonel Sanders’ Stolen Valor

‘He was a real scoundrel and never would have made it’: High-ranking Army officers share their honest feelings on KFC’s fried-chicken hustler

Colonel Sanders was not a real colonel. He did briefly serve in the Army and received an honorable discharge, but the title of colonel was actually bestowed upon him decades after his service ended, by the governor of Kentucky. 

Now, the title of a “Kentucky Colonel” is a purely honorary one, awarded to a notable Kentuckian, but when Harland Sanders received this distinction, it’s safe to say that he ran with it. He began dressing the part, with the string tie and an all-white suit — he even dyed his goatee white to match his hair. Whatever one might imagine a cartoon version of a colonel was, Sanders adopted that and played the part for the rest of his life, eventually making his image into an internationally recognized symbol of finger-lickin’-good chicken.

But becoming a real colonel takes more than 11 herbs and spices — it takes decades of service to your country, so we decided to see what real colonels think about “the Colonel,” his chicken and whether or not it beats Popeyes.

On Colonel Sanders

Colonel Jim McGaughn, Army National Guard, served 31 years, past seven years active duty: Hell with that Colonel Sanders. He’s not a real colonel. I mean, do you need to be a colonel to sell chicken? I don’t really get the whole thing. I’ve only got four or five months left, but when I retire, I ain’t selling no chicken. 

Colonel Jim Hawkins, retired, Army, served 34 years: I’ve always been a fan of the Colonel; I grew up eating his chicken. My first job as a kid in Dayton, Ohio, was when I worked for a mom-and-pop ice cream shop called Shearers, which has since closed. The owners opened that shop back in the 1940s and the one owner, Bob, used to tell us all the time that he and his wife were friends with Harland and Mrs. Sanders and that they’d go down to visit them from time to time. He’d always talk about them as fellow business owners and restaurateurs, which always amused me, as they had this single shop and Sanders had this nationally known Kentucky Fried Chicken empire.

On Kentucky Colonels

Hawkins: I’m actually a Kentucky Colonel as well as a real colonel. A Kentucky Colonel is an honorary title bestowed by the governor of Kentucky on people who have contributed to Kentucky as a state, or honestly, people who have contributed to the governor’s campaign. It came out of the old days when people received their appointments from the governor as officers in the state militia. In the late 19th century, the governor of Kentucky began appointing people as honorary colonels, so the position held no actual rank or authority. 

I know that Harland Sanders was friends with a couple of different governors from Kentucky and was twice appointed as a Kentucky Colonel by two different governors. He liked that title and adopted it as an honorific that he went by for the rest of his life. He was never a colonel in the Army, although he did serve in the Army in his younger years. I think he made it to corporal, but who wants to eat Corporal Sanders’ Chicken? 

On What It Takes to Become a Colonel

Colonel Alan Metzler, retired, Air Force, served 28 years: Becoming a colonel is a career-long process. It takes over 20 years, and it requires a lot of professional development and education in the military — the art of the military, the science of the military and the culture of the military. Getting to colonel is something that requires a significant mastery of operational capability, and also the ability to lead with strategic perspective and the ability to lead leaders.

To make colonel, you go through a series of development milestones and promotions. As an officer, you start out as a second lieutenant, then there’s first lieutenant. Those are two years each. Then you make captain and captain is when you’re expected to master your tactical arts. Then you make major and lieutenant colonel, and that’s when you’re expected to start to think more operationally and more broadly about the profession of arms. After lieutenant colonel, an officer may be considered for promotion to colonel. Once promoted to colonel, you’re a senior officer, and the only level above that is a general officer.

McGaughn: Trust me, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t go through all the shit I’ve been through to become a colonel. This hasn’t been easy and hasn’t been a lot of fun. I mean I’ve had a lot of good times, don’t get me wrong, but give me an honorary title any day over actually having to earn it. 

Hawkins: I’m a colonel twice over, and one was pretty easy to get; the other took a whole career to accomplish. I became a Kentucky Colonel back in 1988, because a family member was friends with the governor of Kentucky and asked him to make me a colonel and he did. I got a certificate in the mail without much fanfare. It’s safe to say that, at the time, I was singularly indistinct as a 21-year-old kid. Maybe it was a harbinger of successes to come, but at the time, I had very little to show for myself.

As for becoming a real colonel, I enlisted in the Army as a private in 1985, served a couple of years, became an officer and worked my way up the ranks. It took about 28 years. I retired as a full colonel in the Army just this past May. 

When I got promoted to colonel for real, I told my wife, “Now that I’m a colonel, maybe you and the kids can refer to me as ‘the Colonel’? For instance: ‘Can I go outside, Mom?’ ‘I don’t know, ask the Colonel.’” Well, she didn’t really go for it, and then she suggested another title, which we didn’t go for either. 

Does It Bother Them That Colonel Sanders Is Called ‘Colonel’?

Metzler: I haven’t thought about it very much, but I know that someone being a “colonel” is part of the social fabric of Kentucky. So I see Colonel Sanders in the same light, it’s paying respect to someone who’s got a certain status.

Hawkins: It never bothered me. It’s a Southern tradition and an honorary thing. It’s clearly distinct from a military colonel. Although if you look at Harland Sanders’ history, he was really a scoundrel and probably never would have made it to become a real colonel. He participated in some brawls, he got fired from several jobs and he was involved in at least one shooting. He was actually a mule tender when he was in the Army. So getting appointed Kentucky Colonel was the only way he was ever going to make it. 

Having both distinctions myself, I’ll say it’s a singular honor to have been promoted to colonel in the Army. It’s certainly a kind of honor to be a Kentucky Colonel as well. But of the two, I’m much prouder of having actually obtained the rank of colonel through hard work.

McGaughn: I always wanted an honorary title from overseas. Like, I’d love to be the “Duke of Alabama,” or something like that. It’s the same thing.

On KFC Marketing

Metzler: I do notice that they’ve got a lot of different people playing Colonel Sanders, like Reba McEntire and the actor who played Rudy — I think he was Sam from the Lord of the Rings — too. Maybe it’s a marketing gimmick that they’re using, but I do pay attention to their commercials because Colonel Sanders is somebody different all the time. But I’ll tell you, when I see one of their commercials, I think about original recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken, how it smells and how it tastes. So if that’s what they’re going for, it works. 

Hawkins: I’m a fan of the original Colonel Sanders, but I’m not a fan of all of the reimaginings of him that are common in their advertising today. I find it a little distasteful. Leave the original classics as original and classic. 

McGaughn: I’ve seen a couple of commercials lately where he’s tan and he’s all sexy and stuff — I think it’s George Hamilton playing him. I was okay with the old white colonel with a little goatee, but when he got all tanned and orangey-looking, it just weirded me out. 

KFC or Popeyes?

Metzler: Oh, KFC all the way. I like their chicken and I’ve liked it for a long time. 

McGaughn: Popeyes for two reasons. One, I like their red beans and rice — always have. And now they’ve got this chicken sandwich — that chicken sandwich is the bomb. No wonder people were killing each other over it.

Hawkins: Nope. No Popeyes. I’m an Army guy; can’t eat Navy Chicken.

Original Recipe, or Extra Crispy?

Hawkins: I like the original recipe. I like the vintage, original chicken.

Metzler: I go for the original recipe with a little extra crispy, everyone loves the extra crispy skin, but you can’t beat the original recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken, it’s got to be in a bucket too. It’s not about the sides, it’s about the bucket and the chicken.

McGaughn: I’m an original recipe guy, because I don’t like George Hamilton.