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Stack-Up.org Uses Gaming to Support Deployed and Injured Veterans

Dec 30, 2015 12:02PM ● Published by Vanessa Orr

There are a lot of issues that face soldiers serving overseas. The areas where they work are hazardous, and they often find themselves in anxiety-provoking situations, where they have to make split-second, life-or-death decisions.

What most people don’t realize, however, is that even a soldier’s downtime can be dangerous.

According to U.S. Army Capt. Stephen Machuga, founder of Stack-Up.org, the tedium and the constant, unrelenting worry that face soldiers each day while serving in a hostile environment take a major toll. “Overseas, it is literally like Groundhog Day. You get up, do your job, and then try to fill the other eight hours a day, 365 days a year,” he explained. “Some people equate being deployed with what it must be like being in jail; you’re anxious at all times, and you’re constantly thinking about how life is going on at home without you.”

An avid gamer, one way that Machuga found relief while serving in Iraq in 2003 was by playing video games. “I consider them deployment changers,” he explained of the games that boost morale and get soldiers doing something fun together.

Games were even more important to Machuga when he returned home, suffering from mild PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). “Video games were a big part of my staying sane while overseas, but they were an even more critical part of my recovery when I came home,” he explained. “It sounds strange, but I had a real problem with trash day, because in Iraq, insurgents would hide explosive devices in the trash along the roadside, and when I would see people’s trash by the curb, my brain would seize up. I knew I was home, but I was inexplicably anxious and had trouble leaving the house.

“The game World of Warcraft came out a few weeks after I got home, and it helped take my mind off of issues,” he continued. “I was able to put my time and energy into video games versus using medication or alcohol. I was entertained, as opposed to anxious.”

Within a few months, Machuga was able to readjust to civilian life, but he never forgot the importance of gaming in his recovery. So when the soldier who has served as his driver in Iraq asked him if he could get any games to send overseas, he made it his mission.

“I reached out to the gaming industry and the response was overwhelming; I was able to send several thousand dollars’ worth of video games overseas,” he said. “The next thing you know, I was getting requests from dozens of troops. And now here we are, five years down the road.”

As the founder of Stack-Up.org, Machuga provides ‘supply crates’ filled with games and gaming equipment to troops overseas, gifts that he concedes are preferable to some of the supplies that he received while serving in Iraq. “When I was deployed, we received a bunch of third-hand Harlequin romance novels from a library, and we used them for target practice on the confiscated arms range,” he said. “I realized then that civilians wanted to help, but didn’t know what we needed. People would send cookies and foot powder in the same package, and the boxes would end up sitting in the hot sun for long periods of time, so the cookies would taste like foot powder. People were well-meaning, but they just didn’t know how to help.”

In this vein, Capt. Machuga named the first campaign for Stack-Up.org, #NoMoreSocks.

In addition to supply crates, the organization runs a program called Air Assault, in which deserving combat veterans are taken on video game trips, like gaming conventions or studio tours, across the country. “The first time I went to Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, it was a life-changing experience,” said Machuga. “It was the equivalent of being a rabid Steelers’ fan finally getting to see their first game at Heinz Field. For many guys in the military, gaming becomes a shared experience; it also creates a shared language between veterans and civilians.”

Helping veterans to reacclimate to civilian life is a goal of Machuga’s, which is where the ‘Stacks’ component of the organization comes in. Stacks are local groups, made up of veterans and civilians, that put on social events and volunteer opportunities to encourage veterans to participate in the community. “A lot of vets tend not to interact with other people, unless they are other vets,” he explained. “We want to get them out of the house and doing things again.”   

There are many ways that people can help Stack-Up.org, including donating lightly used games and equipment, as well as equipment that is no longer being used as the result of an upgrade. “Of course, we can always use cash donations,” added Machuga, “and while we have a strong support base, we could always use more people to help.”  

For more information, visit www.Stack-Up.org.

Health+Wellness video games gaming Stack-Up.org injured veterans
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