Isolation, job loss, and illness have impacted most everyone over the past 18 months, but the effects of Covid-19 on the population at large continue to highlight the need for concentrated support among groups that were already at increased risk of suicide and other mental health issues. Veterans and military personnel fall into this category, and VR gamers are doing their best to help improve emotional wellness of these individuals through practical support and encouragement.

Non-profit organization Stack Up brings veterans, active military, and civilian supporters together through a shared love of gaming and events such as the Onward Stack Up Tournament help fund beneficial programs, but before we delve into Stack Up and the charity VR event, let’s take a look at the challenges.

Suicide rates for veterans is 1.5 times greater than for Americans who have never served in the military and according to a report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there were over 6,000 veteran suicides each year from 2008 to 2017.

In October 2020, the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General released a watchdog report covering the first several months of the pandemic. The onset of a global tragedy led to increased isolation, fear, anxiety, financial strain, and depression. There was an uptick to the Veterans Crisis Line, and although the demand had slowed to pre-pandemic levels by May, the need for continued support remains steady.

Suicide rates have been increasing for the past 20 years among people in the United States and prior to the pandemic, just over one in ten adults (11%) reported symptoms in the first half of 2019 that were consistent with a diagnosable anxiety or depressive disorder. That number had jumped to 41% by January 2021.

Warning Signs

According to the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs, many veterans at imminent risk of suicide might not show signs of an urge to harm themselves. Considering the fact that nearly half of all veterans own at least one firearm and 68% of veterans who commit suicide die from self-inflicted firearm injury (compared to 48% of non-veteran suicides), it’s important to recognize and address signs of depression or increased psychiatric illness such as:

  • Despondent, anxious, irritated most of the time
  • Poor sleep habits, sleeping much of the time or not at all
  • Decreased grooming and personal hygiene
  • Increased self-isolation from family and friends
  • Losing interest in things they used to care about, including hobbies, work, social activities
  • Expressing lack of purpose in life, feelings of guilt or shame, unresolved relationships or issues
  • Increased risk-taking behavior

Unfortunately due to isolation caused by the pandemic, we’re not always aware of the warning signs and this is where a supportive community can make a tremendous impact. Even if people aren’t seeing friends or family in physical reality, they might communicate in games or through online forums such as Discord.

VR gamers are using available tools and interacting through immersive environments, which creates friendship and trust among players. They can then encourage and support one another while simultaneously providing a safe space where people feel more comfortable asking for help.

Image credit: Stack Up

Stack Up

Founded in 2015, Stack Up helps US and Allied military service members through combat zone deployments and through recovery from traumatic physical and emotional injuries with the power of video gaming.

“People who were already isolated were further isolated during quarantine,” says Sean Kelly, Influencer Relations Manager at Stack Up.

Kelly, aka “Deity” to his gamer friends, explains that Stack Up is oriented to gaming or geek culture and those common interests bond community members.

“Elements of geek culture and video games specifically provide some relief, something else for them to focus on,” explains Kelly, who volunteered with Stack Up for nearly three years prior to joining as Influencer Relations Coordinator in 2019.

Kelly had joined the U.S. Army in 1995 as a Canon Crewmember and then worked in Military Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism. Deployed to Kuwait and Iraq (2003) and Afghanistan in 2006, he understands the issues facing veterans and active military personnel.

“Gaming is a way to spend less time thinking about the bad experiences,” says Kelly, adding that games are also a way to build a stronger connection to their military family, which is important because these people understand the unique challenges to active and veteran military personnel.

Captain Stephen Machuga, Founder and CEO of Stack Up, shares the story of how video games saved his life after he returned from Iraq. For him the particular stressor was leaving his house and seeing trash piled up for collection, which triggered memories of Iraq where insurgents would hide explosives in trash piles so there was always risk of one blowing up as you drove by.

A few weeks after Machuga returned home, he began playing the newly released World of Warcraft and he was able to focus on driving through town to jump into his next mission in game rather than being stressed by the piles of trash. In 2010 when a friend re-enlisted and was immediately shipped to Afghanistan, Machuga began sending thousands of dollars of donated games and gear to units overseas.

Image credit: Stack Up

To be clear, it’s not as if others haven’t been supportive of active military personnel, but sometimes those efforts can be a bit misdirected.

“When I was in Iraq, our infantry company received a crate full of third hand romance novels from a library,” states Machuga. “We used them for target practice on the confiscated arms range, but it was there I realized: people wanted to help veterans, but they just didn’t know what we wanted.”

Overwatch Program

There are several great programs at Stack Up that help veterans deal with the stresses of deployment as well as recovery and transition once they’ve returned home. One vital support service is the Stack Up Overwatch Program (StOP), designed to watch over the community and provide critical non-clinical peer-to-peer support through Discord, on the phone or via the app.

The StOP Squad are trained and certified to assist in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. Squad team members are HIPAA certified and conversations are kept in strict confidence. Available 24 hours a day every day of the year, the StOP Squad can provide resources, support services, or simply a safe space to talk about issues with which veterans are struggling. Services are available to anyone over the age of 18.

Supply Crates and Air Assault

In addition to the Overwatch Program, Stack Up continues to follow the example of Machuga’s initial efforts with practical support by sending care packages filled with video gaming and nerd goodies to deployed service members of the US and Allied Armed Forces.

Supply Crates provide a healthy outlet to decompress and help prevent the onset of operational stress. Rather than focusing on the tragedies around them or how many days they have left in theater, they can focus on something more positive with their battle buddies.

Image credit: Stack Up

Air Assaults are all-expense paid trips to video game and geek culture events that allow veterans to connect with others who share their interests and support them. The goal is to provide an experience the veterans can look back on with positivity and feel encouraged about the future.

This is actually how I originally learned of Stack Up when I met several veterans at Oculus Connect 5 in 2018. The event did have a positive impact on them as well as others and it was obvious that there was a mutual respect among developers, esports competitors, and veterans. People came from different backgrounds and had various roles, but we came together as a community of VR gamers.

Charity Tournament

One group that has been particularly supportive of Stack Up is the VR gaming community of Onward, a tactical mil-sim first-person shooter from Downpour Interactive. Many Onward players have actively supported military veterans and in fact the veterans I met at Oculus Connect were there to watch an esports event that featured Onward.

“We all love and support our veterans and active military. But the harsh reality is that they suffer every day with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and much more,” says F. Lapinski, Onward Stack Up Tournament organizer.

“Those who sacrificed for us are paying the price,” he adds.

The first Onward Stack Up Tournament will be held September 4-5 with all donations and entry fees going towards Stack Up. Currently there is a $2,000 prize pool with items from other supportive VR communities such as ProTube VR, VR Master League, VR Wear, Sanlaki, and The Hive/VRespawn.

There are two brackets for the event:  T-Rex for higher-skilled teams and Spinosaurus for lower-ranked teams. Additional details and rules can be found on the Onward Charity Tournament Discord server.

  • Date: September 4-5
  • Time: Begins at 2:00 pm EDT
  • Entry fee: T-Rex Bracket $20/player | Spinosaurus Bracket $10/player
  • Prizes: T-Rex  winners will receive a MagTube gunstock from ProTube VR fully customized for each player, VR Wear T-shirt, Sanlaki Table Tennis Controllers, and a custom event team jersey. | Spinosaurus winners will receive a Sanlaki gun stock and a Sanlaki Table Tennis controller, and a VR Wear T-shirt.
  • Watch live: The event will be streamed and casted through VRML Twitch channels.

You can donate directly to the Stack Up charity here.