The Marvel Comics universe has such a wide and diverse assortment of characters that there’s a superhero for everyone. Within that vast collection of characters, there are many heroes who have military backgrounds, each of which represents a different aspect of military service. Captain America, for example, is remisicient the soldier who’s willing to lay down his life for the betterment of mankind. Falcon is the airman who’s always going to help his fellow veteran. Even the Coast Guard gets a champion in Spectrum, who’s always going to protect the homefront.
But you don’t usually see Cap’s shield spray painted by troops onto the sides of Hesco barriers while deployed — but you’ll definitely see the Punisher’s skull. It doesn’t matter which branch a troop serves in; universally, troops find more in common with the vigilante anti-hero whose only real power is shootin’ real good than they do with some morally-unwavering, genetically-enhanced super soldier.
Frank Castle, better known as The Punisher, is a very deep character. In his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #129, he was actually an antagonist pitted against our favorite wall-crawler. He’s hired to kill Spider-Man by a villain seeking revenge for the death of Norman Osborn (known as the Green Goblin by most), which was pinned on Spidey. Castle puts up a good fight, but eventually has a heart-to-heart with Parker. He reveals his frustrations with being a vigilante killer, but it’s something, in his mind, that has to be done sometimes.
Many writers have penned fantastic stories for the Punisher since his 1974 debut, but throughout them all, the heart of the character remains the same. He’s a highly-skilled Marine Corps veteran who lost his family to criminals and is forced into taking extra-judiciary measures to ensure the killers can’t strike again. From storyline to storyline, Castle dons his infamous white skull on black gear and puts a bullet into the worst of the worst of the Marvel universe.
He’s not a typical hero — he definitely commits countless crimes for the sake of good — but he’s also not a villain. He will go out of his way to not harm the innocent. He’ll gather information on whoever he’s going after to know if they’re really evil, he’ll spare any low-level bad guy who wants to surrender, and (perhaps the most prominent piece of evidence against villainy) he never enjoys killing.
He’s comfortable with it, and his mind is at ease knowing someone innocent is safe because of his actions, but he has never been shown, in all of his 45-year-long comic history, enjoying the act of killing. That’s what separates him from the psychotic villains he encounters. It’s his duty to protect the innocent. It’s his burden to have to do terrible things to make it so. That’s something many troops can get behind.
It also helps that he truly encapsulates the rest of the minor moments that come with being a veteran. Like his monologue in Daredevil season 2.
Another key element of the Punisher that’s enjoyed by fans is the famous skull logo. You can’t drive around a barracks parking lot without seeing a lifted Ford F-150 with adorned with a Punisher decal modified to have either the U.S. flag pattern or the “Back the Blue” stripe incorporated.
Though the skull has its origins in comic book, it’s taken on an entirely new meaning with the troops. It’s now a brand for anyone willing to stand for what’s right. Sure, Captain America’s shield might be a more apt symbol for that, but the Punisher’s skull has more of an impactful meaning easily caught by the viewer.
Chris Kyle explained his use of the skull best in his autobiography, American Sniper:
“Our Comms guy suggested it before the deployment. We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him. That’s what we were all about. So we adapted his symbol — a skull — and made it our own, with some modifications. We spray-painted it on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. And we spray-painted it on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know, we’re here and we want to f*ck with you… It was our version of PsyOps. You see us? We’re the people kicking your ass. Fear us. Because we will kill you, mother f*cker. You are bad — we are badder.