sgtslaughter

The True History of Sgt. Slaughter’s Stolen Valor

Is kayfabe still kayfabe when the lie bleeds over into the wrestler’s personal life?

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Sgt. Slaughter — well, Robert Remus, the man behind the wrestling gimmick — never served in the military. After all, it is just a wrestling gimmick… right?

Well, yes. And no. But mostly yes. Yet the discovery of a 35-year-old article clarifying his status has had fans asking questions recently about the foremost drill instructor in sports entertainment. It turns out that a major market newspaper had explicitly reported the fact that “Sgt. Slaughter” never served decades ago, even though Remus still claimed as recently as last summer that he was a real Marine. In a 2015 interview with KMEL radio, for example, the interviewer called him a genuine veteran “who had military experience.” Slaughter then replied, “I didn’t even think about using that character” when he first broke into wrestling, instead having an epiphany watching 1957’s Jack Webb vehicle The D.I. on television.

“So I went down to my locker box, pulled out my campaign cover and got my swagger stick out,” he explained. “When my wife got home from work, I had her take a disposable camera, take some pictures of me growling, and being bad, and took ’em over to a wrestling office — Verne Gagne’s wrestling office.”

The article that set off the latest controversy was originally published in the March 24, 1985, issue of the Baltimore Sun’s Sun Magazine, which featured Slaughter on the cover. “Government records reveal Slaughter, a.k.a. Robert Remus, never served time in the U.S. Marine Corps, though he claims to have been a drill instructor from 1966 to 1973,” wrote Michael Davis and Mike Klinganman. “Slaughter dodges all questions about his armed service record for good reason.” 

The Sun also spoke to then-USMC Captain Jay Farrar of the Public Affairs Office, who added that “we’ve been ‘interested’ in Slaughter for a couple of years, since he began using our paraphernalia, but the guy has been very elusive.” Farrar’s office had “received 50 complaints in the past year from true-blue Marines, citing Slaughter’s abuse of the uniform,” which Farrar said mainly stemmed from “when his opponents staged attacks on people wearing dress blue uniforms, whom we strongly believe were not Marines.”

In the fall of 1984, though, “when Congress passed a law prohibiting the use of the Marine Corps emblem and insignia by civilians,” it gave the Marines more leverage, and Farrar’s office “fired off a letter demanding that Slaughter stop because his actions ‘reflect discredit on those who have served.’” Farrar, for his part, did concede that going further, like prosecuting Remus, might not be worth it given the nature of the Slaughter character. (Slaughter and his representatives refused to comment at the time.)

I first noticed the Sun story last February while doing research on Newspapers.com. I found it interesting, but I didn’t think much of it since the extent of Slaughter’s claims weren’t at the forefront of my mind. That seems to also be the case for many others, at least as far as why this story has, somewhat improbably, not come to a head sooner. Still, the 1985 article was explicit and well-reported, and a legitimate veteran-turned-pro-wrestler, Jesse Ventura, would later state the truth about Slaughter in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1991 and, nationally, on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report in 2008

But in 1985, Slaughter was mostly understood to be pretending to be a Marine strictly as a wrestling gimmick. Not to mention, in the ensuing years, the YouTube and podcast booms hadn’t really gotten going yet — at least not to the degree that it would be easy to be aware of what Slaughter has claimed about being a genuine Marine while explicitly out-of-character. 

In other words: Maybe you heard that Slaughter wasn’t a genuine Marine at one point, and you heard him giving an out-of-character interview where he claimed real military service. But they were probably so far removed from each other that you never thought of them together.

Several months after I first spotted the Sun article, wrestling historian J. Steve Hicks — he uses the pen name Karl Stern online — was researching Slaughter’s case for induction in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame. During that process, he came across not just the Sun article but also Remus’ more recent claims to have genuinely served. All of that resulted in the historian expressing discomfort with voting for someone who has brazenly been impersonating a Marine, and sharing the Sun clipping a few weeks ago on the Observer’s message board for subscribers. Longtime wrestling reporter Steve Bryant of SoCalUncensored.com saw the post, tweeted the Sun clipping and set off a firestorm of internet discussion and wrestling news website articles. Bryant then put in a Freedom of Information Act request about Remus, quickly resulting in a letter confirming that, indeed, the wrestler never served.

A disappointingly large number of comments on the topic of Remus’ military service have examined the topic as shallowly as possible, with “The Undertaker isn’t really dead, either” kind of responses. All of which misses the point. Nobody’s talking about the Sgt. Slaughter character — or even Remus, frankly — being a valor thief at his peak, when kayfabe was still strong, past a few mid-1980s Marines. (It doesn’t help, though that, even then, he would make the distinction to reporters that he was a “real Marine,” like in a March 1981 Washington Evening Star story.) The current issue is:

Remus has long given — and continues to give — out-of-character interviews where, despite being introduced as Sgt. Slaughter, he’s clearly speaking as Bob Remus and still claims to have served in the Marine Corps. Not as a character backstory, mind you, but as Bob Remus’ personal backstory.

The WWE, which partners with multiple veterans’ organizations, refers to Slaughter as a legitimate military veteran on its website and uses him as a company ambassador at military events. That last link is the most explicit, using his real name and putting him in a Veterans Day 2018 listicle of wrestlers who otherwise legitimately served. “After graduating from high school,” wrote digital content producer Kevin Powers, “young Robert Remus joined the United States Marine Corps where he earned the moniker ‘Sgt. Slaughter.’”

In fairness to both the WWE generally and individual staff like Powers, it seems unlikely that anyone involved in such things has any idea that Remus hasn’t served, especially since the Sun article didn’t involve the company and he even told other wrestlers for decades that he’d served. WWE is a lot of things, but stupid enough to send a valor thief to military events isn’t one of them.

Part of the issue, too, is that Slaughter is an undisputed legend in pro wrestling. Debuting in December 1973, he was a journeyman throughout the rest of the decade, starting under his real name before switching to other gimmicks like Bob Slaughter and the masked Super Destroyer Mark II. In 1980, though, he got his big break, heading to the WWF (now WWE) — the biggest money promotion in the country, even then — as the villainous Sgt. Slaughter. The gimmick wasn’t entirely new: When he first became Bob Slaughter in 1976 in the Kansas City territory, he was billed as an ex-Marine drill instructor and nicknamed “The D.I.” But as Sgt. Slaughter, he perfected the act, becoming one of the biggest stars and top villains in the business almost overnight. 

After a successful year-long run doing strong business with great matches (primarily against Bob Backlund and Pat Patterson), he moved on to Jim Crockett Promotions in the Carolinas, another famously lucrative territory, eventually causing a massive traffic jam in Greensboro for the climactic cage match of his biggest feud in the region, with tag-team partner Don Kernodle, against Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood.

Slaughter would return to the WWF shortly after the traffic jam, changing his villainous ways to a good guy after about a year. It was brilliant in its simplicity: After the Iron Sheik, the evil (and genuine) Iranian Greco-Roman standout won a match, he and Slaughter met in the aisle and started jawing at each other, instantly turning Sarge face. To make things official, he later saved Eddie Gilbert from the Sheik’s antics, after which he announced, “IRON SHEIK, I DECLARE WAR ON YOU!” and led the fans in the Pledge of Allegiance. Throughout 1984, then, Slaughter was, at a minimum, as big of an attraction as Hulk Hogan, if not bigger.

As such, in December 1984, Slaughter/Remus gave an interview to Ray Didinger of the Philadelphia Daily News, which would be syndicated nationwide throughout 1985 by Knight-Ridder and the Associated Press. “You’ve got to understand: That’s Sgt. Slaughter, that’s not me,” Remus said of his TV wrestling persona. “It’s like Paul Newman. He’s not Butch Cassidy, that was just a role he played. When I leave here, I’m Bob Slaughter. I’m a pretty regular guy. I like my privacy, I like to play golf and listen to music. My idea of a perfect evening is to cook a steak, build a fire and relax. I just wish I had more time to do that.” 

While no, his real name is not “Bob Slaughter,” Remus was still making a clear distinction as early as late 1984 that “Sgt. Slaughter” was a character separate from the real person who portrayed him, and that the real person still was a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. While Didinger’s statement that his subject was an actual veteran is made in passing (“The 34-year-old Marine Corps veteran was dressed in slacks and a wind-breaker…) and doesn’t quote Remus/Slaughter, the wrestler would continue to claim until as recently as a few months ago that he was a genuine veteran, decades after he had started talking about the wrestling business in more surface-honest terms.

And not just to the media either. “I walked into a café near the Holiday Inn in Oklahoma City and saw Sergeant Slaughter sitting quietly by himself,” Bret Hart wrote in his memoir, Hitman, which is sourced almost entirely from his contemporaneous audio diaries. “Sarge invited me to join him; we talked about his family, his time in the business, his career as a real soldier — he left the Army [sic] for wrestling.” 

While Hart included the account of this November 29, 1984, dinner to note that Slaughter warned him to “watch your back” because “Vince [McMahon] is a ruthless guy,” it serves a different purpose now. That is, to show that Slaughter was even lying to his fellow wrestlers about serving. 

Along the same lines, one wrestler of a younger generation, who requested anonymity, told me that more recently, at the annual Cauliflower Alley Club convention, Slaughter gave him a similar story, one that, even as someone with family who served in the Marines, he bought. “He did his research,” the wrestler added. 

Longtime wrestling performer Jim Cornette, who worked with Slaughter in the WWF, also expressed shock over Remus’ non-service on his podcast last week when answering a listener question about the controversy. “Well, I always thought he was in the Marines!” exclaimed the former member of the WWF creative team and talent relations department through laughter. “I really did! I thought he had been a Marine before he was a wrestler.”

Over the last few years, though, Remus has made matters worse by pushing more and more egregious claims. Case in point: “Yes,” he responded when Jim Norton of Sirius XM’s Jim and Sam Show asked him if he really served in the Marine Corps last February 18th. “Got out in ’74, went in in ’68. Two tours of Vietnam, yeah. I was, basically, just infantry, you know? Making sure all the, uh, the grunts don’t [go] AWOL on us, and keep ’em all in line.”  

It got a lot uglier when Norton asked him if he was “messed up when you came back,” with Remus saying that “we never talked about it much” because Vietnam vets weren’t viewed as returning heroes. “There were some bad experiences, things I did [that] I never really would have done unless I was ordered to do it,” he added, seemingly suggesting that he had regret and/or PTSD from committing war crimes or something close to it. 

After Remus claimed that the “Sgt. Slaughter” name was given to him in the Marines and that the gimmick as presented was inspired by The D.I., Norton asks him if he ever participated in any “blanket parties” a la the famous scene in Full Metal Jacket. “Oh yeah, yeah, I’ve been in one,” Remus replied. 

“What did the guy do?” Norton followed up.

“He snuck the, uh, Twinkies in the barracks. They made us do it,” Remus answered.

When co-host Sam Roberts asked Remus how long he was out of the Marines when he started wrestling, the result was another halted answer: After he was on leave for six months, Remus claimed. (FWIW: Available newspaper records don’t shed any light on what Remus really did during his “service” other than getting married.) After that answer, the topic was mercifully brought back entirely to wrestling.

Remus may have, at least briefly, had regrets after that one. Because during the same short New York media tour to promote WrestleMania-related events that would hit the city several weeks later, he danced around military-related questions in a Fox News interview published eight days after he was on Jim and Sam. “My father suggested maybe I want to join the Corps, join the military service and maybe do college later,” Remus told Fox. “So I thought, ‘Well, that’s probably what I’ll do. I’ll go into the Marine Corps, and I’ll go to college when I get out.’ I got halfway there [and] ended up at a pro wrestling training camp on leave.” A follow-up question asking if it was “an easy transition for you from being a Marine to becoming a pro wrestler” saw Remus avoid going further than the above implication that he may have only gone through basic training. Instead, he focused on how “go[ing] through the calisthenics and everything that goes along with it to see if you really want it” benefited his transition.

That said, he further committed to military service six months ago on the Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Podcast, recorded before a live audience at the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa. Even while being interviewed by Keller, a veteran insider wrestling reporter, Slaughter stuck with his story, spinning his usual “Marine” yarns starting at the 24:57 mark of the podcast. It was less disorienting than usual, though, because he grounded the tall tales in enough ostensible reality — connecting everything to wrestling stories, e.g., getting the Sgt. Slaughter name from Jackie Gleason’s “Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter” character in Soldier in the Rain — that he sounded like himself and not the nervous, monosyllabic mess that he was in the Jim and Sam interview. He probably did get the idea from The D.I., it just didn’t remind him of his own such superior officer because he never had one.

As for what he’s said since things have really blown up over the last few weeks? Not much. By way of his choice of retweets and who he chooses to send positive vibes to when he responds to tweets, he’s been stumping for the bad faith and/or uninformed take that he was just playing his gimmick like any other old-school wrestler. Perhaps most odiously, he responded in detail to infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec. After the troll put Slaughter on a pedestal as having “always been there for the troops,” the wrestler responded in very Boomer-y fashion. “FINALLY Someone Gets It FINALLY Someone Recognizes It FINALLY Someone Understands Who @_SgtSlaughter Is🤷🏻‍♂,” he wrote, adding “God Bless You @JackPosobiec🇺🇸🙏🏻” and the same message for all who have served the country.

Which, of course, doesn’t include him, no matter how much he says otherwise.