One military nonprofit believes that video gaming can be a therapeutic escape for veterans. Founded in 2015 by Army veteran Stephen Machuga, Stack Up aims to use the power of video games to help U.S. and Allied military members and veterans who are struggling with the stress of deployment or reintegration into civilian life.
According to Brian Skatch Snyder, Director of Communications at Stack Up, “Our stated goal is to end veteran suicide. We know that's a lofty goal, but it's what we've chosen.” The 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report stated that in 2019, there was an average of 17.2 veteran suicides each day, an increase of 4.5% since 2001.
Stack Up combats these statistics through four unique services.
StOP offers 24/7 peer-to-peer mental health support for veterans and civilians alike via the organization's Discord platform. This team of crisis management volunteers are trained and certified with the help of PsychArmor, a nonprofit that serves the same community.
Supply Crates function as what Snyder likes to call “preventative medicine.”
In the hopes of boosting morale while deployed, Stack Up ships care packages of the latest games and consoles to active duty service members across the country and overseas.
Stack Up's Air Assaults are all-expense-paid trips for veterans to attend gaming conventions or others like the Penny Arcade Expo and Comic-Con. “We show them this whole world of culture out there that is willing to embrace them, a lot of times veterans have a hard time connecting with the civilian world. It also allows them to reconnect with veterans in a way that they haven't in a long time,” Snyder said.
As the organization's “local boots on the ground,” The Stacks consist of local volunteers who use gaming and other activities to make meaningful connections with veterans in their communities. Volunteers host a variety of events from game nights with pizza to community betterment projects.
When asked how the idea of supporting veterans through gaming came to fruition, Snyder explained, “We as civilians have it in our head that it's still like World War II and we need to send socks and toothpaste and stuff like that. And while that stuff is appreciated, our troops are also taken care of a lot better than they were back in the day … what they do lack is things that take their mind off of it.”
Though all types of games are welcome at Stack Up, the most commonly requested are shooters, sports games, and RPGs. “Anything with multiplayer,” Snyder said. “Because they're able to maintain that connection, nowadays gaming is such a social experience.”
Socializing, however, can be difficult for veterans who are dealing with feelings of isolation, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress. Snyder explained that many of the veterans who attend the Air Assault trips have not been in a group setting for quite some time. “I have a story about one veteran who went to Walmart in the weeks leading up to the trip to just immerse himself into being around people. And one of the ways he got through that social anxiety was by being able to have a little cannabis.”
Open about his own cannabis use, Snyder attended a number of Air Assault trips where the veterans requested to make pit stops for weed in order to cope with various ailments from trouble sleeping to phantom limb pain. “A lot of it's anecdotal, what I'm hearing from these guys, but if it makes a difference, it makes a difference,” he said. When some of the veterans were in search of the nearest dispensary on a trip in 2016, he directed them to Weedmaps, to which they responded in utter disbelief that cannabis could be so accessible. “I get a call from my program director and he's like, 'come on, stop kidding me. Weedmaps ain't a real thing.'”
For many veterans, there's still a stigma surrounding cannabis because it is federally illegal. Yet it would only make sense that video games and cannabis go hand in hand for veterans looking to take a break from reality and make connections with like-minded people. Snyder is optimistic that the barriers to access for veterans will be broken down as more states legalize, and more people are educated about the plant.
Like many businesses faced with the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, Stack Up had to make some adjustments over the last year. The Air Assaults program had to be put on hold, but the team took it as an opportunity to improve in other areas. “We shifted the funding we would have spent on that and increased our supply crates from four crates a month to 12 crates a month. While doing that, we also were able to increase our fundraising and make that a permanent addition.” Snyder also noted that Stack Up's digital community completely exploded and their virtual game nights took on a life of their own. “People are hungry for that connection,” he added.
Fortunately, the organization is getting ready to start ramping up its Air Assaults program again in the coming year and hopes to continue to expand its other programs to more locations across the globe.
To learn more about you can get involved with Stack Up, visit www.stackup.org.