A Veterans’ Gaming Charity Blazes Trails, But Opens Old Wounds
By Zach Caldwell
War is months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, runs an old adage. Yet there are moments of inspiration, too.
For Stephen Machuga, insight came in 2003 at his Army infantry company in Iraq in the form of a crate of romance novels, dog-eared and unwanted. He and fellow soldiers used the books, donated by a well-meaning library back in the states, for target practice.
“People back home don’t really know what we … want,” Machuga recalled thinking, in a recent telephone interview. What he wanted was video games. So after surviving a suicide bombing, he had a $5,000 gaming laptop shipped to him in Iraq. When he returned stateside, gaming helped him cope with the anxiety of post-traumatic stress disorder. Four years after he left the Army in 2006, he founded Operation Supply Drop, a charity aimed at delivering video games and consoles to deployed service members.
Using pastimes as coping tools for wartime stress is nothing new, said Erik Johnson, Supply Drop’s chief medical officer. He pointed to the First World War and the work of “reconstruction aides,” the forerunners of the modern military’s occupational therapists.
The aides’ job “was to pull guys off the front line who [suffered from] shell shock or combat stress or fatigue and … engage them in occupation-based things like crafts or woodworking to get their minds off the perils of war,” Johnson said.
From its humble beginnings in Machuga’s Washington, D.C., basement, Supply Drop has shipped over 500,000 games to troops stationed in some 300 units across the globe from a fulfillment warehouse in North Carolina. The nonprofit reported revenue over $5 million in contributions and grants in 2015. That same year, Machuga designated Glenn Banton, a friend and business-savvy team member, as the charity’s CEO. For Machuga, who describes himself as “not business-minded,” Banton represented the yin to his yang.
“[Banton] was the business side of the house, and he had all kinds of great ideas of how to take things forward,” Machuga said.
The relationship frayed as Supply Drop expanded beyond games into other veterans programs. Five years later, Machuga left the nonprofit, saying he was edged out. Banton says Machuga quit.
According to Chris Ford, CEO of the National Association of Veteran-Serving Organizations, handing off the reins can be the right call for some charity founders. “There’s something to be said for moving past your founder into a more seasoned executive who can take the organization to scale,” Ford said in a telephone interview.
Under Banton’s leadership, Supply Drop’s operation grew in size and scope. While continuing to bring games to troops, it now encompasses professional development workshops for veterans, community activism initiatives and veteran-therapy projects that incorporate video games into rehabilitation.
“A lot of the troops that we’d been serving while they were overseas started to come back home. … They were saying, ‘Hey, I want help,’ and zero percent of the time did it have anything to do with gaming,” Banton said in a telephone interview.
Nonetheless, Operation Supply Drop’s expansion, Banton says, was possible because the organization had established itself as a charity proven responsive to the needs of the troops and veterans it serves. “The reality was that we’ve hit generational relevance on the head,” he said.
But growth came at a price. In 2015, after five years of work, Machuga says he was terminated by the charity he had created as more of its operations were performed by non-veterans, including Banton.
“I noticed I was getting slowly edged out of the organization, and they were getting further and further away from video gaming,” Machuga said. “I was terminated five years to the day [from when] I founded Operation Supply Drop.”
Banton sees it differently. “The choice was his, and he made it,” he said in an email. “Mr. Machuga’s employment ended on 10/30/15. We cannot comment on the specific circumstances regarding Mr. Machuga’s employment as it would violate our policies regarding employee privacy.” Banton said Machuga resigned from Supply Drop’s board on Nov. 3, 2015.
After Machuga departed, Banton issued a memorandum charting the charity’s new course, with a focus on community outreach and support.
Machuga met with lawyers to discuss regaining his position through legal action, but opted to start fresh with a new charity he called Stack-Up. Based in Pittsburgh, its mission remains true to Machuga’s initial vision of getting games into the hands of service members.
Supply Drop, meanwhile, has charged ahead. The original game-shipping endeavor, now dubbed Games to Grunts, shares equal billing with other efforts such as Respawn, a therapy project helmed by Johnson, Supply Drop’s chief medical officer. It employs video games and other interactive tools to treat a variety of conditions in returning veterans, from diminished range of motion to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
“We don’t put boundaries on the support we provide, and we never will,” Banton said.
“They were trying to turn OSD into an organization that rivals the Wounded Warrior Project,” Machuga said, referring to the well-known national charity. For him, the expansion meant turning Supply Drop into something more generic, “just another veteran’s charity.”
Ford, who has worked with a variety of veterans’ nonprofits at the national association, has seen charities diffuse their efforts in similar ways. “The risk, of course, is that organizations quickly become a mile-wide and one inch deep,” he said.
Banton stands by the bigger, broader Supply Drop, pointing out that the transformation began while Machuga was still with the charity. “We would hope Mr. Machuga would applaud not just our wanting to expand, but also our successful execution of complementary programs impacting more veterans,” he said
Banton stressed the theme of community throughout the charity’s operations, which include efforts to combat veteran’s homelessness and help for service members entering the work force to translate their military record into marketable, private-sector skills.
“We’re always trying to answer the question ‘then what?’ and for us, the answer … is that you have some kind of community support structure,” Banton said.
Stack-Up, with sponsorships from big-time game developers like Ubisoft and Bungie, continues its mission, shipping 49 crates of games and gear in 2016. To “stack up,” in military parlance, is to assemble single-file with one’s team before entering a room containing a potential threat.
“They say the best revenge is living well,” said Machuga. “And we’re having a damn good time over here.”