There’s a running gag among standup comedians who perform in the Heartland, where you ask a crowd if they support the troops. This always gets a round of applause, hoots, and hollers. Then you interrupt that applause to ask “How? How do you support the troops?” The room gets quiet real fast.
I’ve been on both sides of this gag, but I don’t worry about it much anymore, because I actually have an answer. I volunteer with the military gaming non-profit Operation Supply Drop, which distributes video game care packages (called “supply drops”) to soldiers deployed to combat zones and recovering in military hospitals.
Founded in 2010 by a former Airborne Ranger, Operation Supply Drop is the result of one terrible donation: a well-meaning civilian sent a collection of Harlequin romance novels to deployed Rangers in Afghanistan. Not wanting to waste them, the Rangers wound up using the books as target practice after concluding this was better than reading them. But the generosity behind the donation nonetheless inspired them. Ultimately, veterans began Operation Supply Drop program as a platform on which active and injured military personnel could request video games and donors could play Santa.
Currently, there are three extensions of the program, supplying video games and consoles to troops in the field, troops in hospitals around the world, and troops heading home at the end of their service. It is perhaps the most generationally relevant campaign around troop morale, and one of the most important to re-integration.
“There are so many opportunities to help support our troops in a powerful way that are just being overlooked,” OSP CEO Glenn Banton says. “If you considered sending a game our way instead of getting the five dollars from them you’d be paid for a used game, you might find it more rewarding.”
If it’s ironic that the most popular games simulate war, it’s only lightly so. As Banton points out, loneliness and being under fire are, for soldiers, sensations at odds.
“We get a lot of requests for the Call of Duty games, your Battlefields, Madden, along with anything that’s got Tom Clancy’s name on it,” Banton said. “Those getting shot at regularly in the field, they feel drawn to these military shooters because it strengthens the camaraderie of the team. And some of those officers stationed in desk positions play it the same way as citizens do; a form of escapism, even though they’re so close to the fighting.”
“In the last six weeks we’ve sent out more supply drops than in the last six months combined,” says Ray Whitaker, 21-year Army veteran who works with the program. “We have great supporters.”
One of the biggest challenges facing OSD is that implementation in this console generation of “always on” internet connections and constant updates require internet connection. “If you’re in Afghanistan, you’re just not going to be able to download a six gigabyte update whenever you want,” says Whitaker. Which is why a big part of OSD’s process now involves the prep work on supply drops. Thanks to a partnership with GAEMS, the folks at OSD now have access to console protective carriers that include monitor screens. Whitaker insists that shipping a console to active war zones without this kind of packaging is a fool’s errand. “When I was overseas, we got an original X-Box and it lasted a little under a month. After it died, we turned it upside down and a mountain of sand fell out. It was awful.”
While gaming may bring about escapism, Banton insists that the benefits of video games stretch far beyond entertainment, and into preventative psychology and mental health.
“While everyone is at risk of PTSD, one of the things we’re learning is that community can help battle those effects, and video games offer a powerful aide in that fight. Gaming is one of the few things that is the same no matter whether you’re sitting in a hut in the desert or back in suburban America. When many of these troops return to civilian life, that game may be the only thing that remains the same, and that constancy can make a difference.”
Whitaker says that games can also ease transitions: “My wife wouldn’t call herself a gamer, but I’m not sure how we would’ve made it if not for games like Mario and SSX Tricky when I first got home. Now, my family has this understanding that the first week I’m back, we just play games together.”
While OSD has to provide a lot of their own hardware, the big call for donations now takes the form of financial contributions or really any physical or digital games. They run a regular crowdfunding/streaming operation called Operation 8-Bit, but you can make donations anytime of year. If you’re looking for something specific in the days before the holidays, the Winter Steam Sale is currently running, making thousands of popular games dirt cheap.
Physical donations can be mailed to: Operation Supply Drop, 1064 Bluff Woods Drive, Driftwood, TX 78619. Digital codes, questions about shipping, or ideas for donation events/integration can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org