How a former soldier decided to send video games to troops in the field.
Army Ranger Stephen Machuga is nervous. He's trying to hide it, shuffling through the cluttered room — once a living room, now a warehouse — that's serving its second or third life as headquarters for his charity. But it's there plain as day: Something is eating at him.
It's an old soldier trick, this, the staying busy. Don't think about what might happen when you walk outside the wire, or jump out of the plane. Don't think about the danger. Busy your mind with simple tasks. Fill the hours of waiting, or else go crazy obsessing over things you can't control. It's a trick that, as a former captain, a literal leader of men, Machuga must have mastered — must have taught. But one wonders, seeing the worry creep through the smile on his face and the hesitation in his steps, if he might not be slipping. Or even if the trick is any more effective in war. It's sure as hell not working now.
Machuga, retired from the Army, is now the head of Operation Supply Drop, the charity he established to send care packages of video games to soldiers serving overseas. The cluttered room is stacked floor to ceiling with video games, video game machines and an assortment of tchotchkes sent by well-meaning donors, mainly corporations. The items being stored here will get placed in boxes (of a precise size and weight) and then sent to soldiers overseas. The boxes may take months to arrive at their destinations. They may not even arrive at all.
On Machuga's website is the tale of one such lost shipment, which he calls "Operation Plasma Cutter." The box, filled with games and Guitar Hero guitars, was blown up along with a month's worth of mail for an infantry unit deep in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan. The truck delivering those items was hit by an IED, an improvised bomb, and reduced to little more than smoldering ash. The Plasma Cutter shipment was vaporized.
The truck delivering those items was hit by an IED, an improvised bomb, and reduced to little more than smoldering ash.
Today Machuga is filling 10 more such boxes, each emblazoned with the logo of his charity and filled with hundreds of dollars worth of games and game consoles. He's just completed his "8-bit Salute" fundraiser, and the response this year was overwhelming. The merchandise has been arriving in freight trucks. He is now inundated. Success, of a sort, but not without strings. He has received masses of Xbox 360 games to send to the troops, for example, but very few Xbox 360s. Meanwhile, he received a generous shipment of God of War PS3 consoles, but very few PS3 games. The majority of his inventory is mostly in the way as he struggles to mix and match — filling the boxes, staying busy.
But the worry hasn't to do with any of this. Machuga is expecting a donation that could change his life and his charity forever. A donation that could set him up, after three years of toiling in obscurity, to help the troops full time. He's expecting nothing less than the fulfillment of a mission that started on his return to civilian life seven years ago, and the promise he made to a friend. And it all hinges on a phone call. And that phone call is late.
Cookies and soap
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been raging for so long soldiers now serving in the field were barely out of diapers when they started. Today, wearing body armor and carrying weapons of death, they're barely older than high schoolers. And there are a lot of them.
Probably the greatest irony of soldier life is that it's not at all like the movies and recruitment posters. Except when it is, which is minutes of a day. The rest of the time is just passing time. Waiting to get shot at or blown up. The pendulum swing between these two extremes takes its toll.
"It's very much a 23 hours and 40 minutes of sitting around, and then 20 minutes of chaos ... Guys get into trouble. Guys do stupid shit," says Machuga.
In some parts of the world, soldiers receive all manner of distractions to keep them from doing stupid shit. Many bases come fully equipped. Some have night clubs, restaurants. Those are the places where soldiering is only a few steps away from living a normal life. In other places soldiers are eating, sleeping and waiting to get shot at in bases that are little more than hovels made of dirt-filled barriers, constructed hastily at the intersection of a road, surrounded by enemy territory. Places where soldiers are bomb magnets. Places like Afghanistan's Helmand Province, where Operation Plasma Cutter's care package was obliterated. Or southern Iraq, where Machuga deployed in 2003.
"We spent the first six months driving all over ... dealing with al-Sadr's guys," he says, referring to the warlord Muqtada al-Sadr who filled the power vacuum left by the deposing of Saddam Hussein and mobilized an army of poor and dispossessed Iraqis from the Baghdad slums to fight the American forces in Iraq. "They were effectively setting up an embargo of our fuel trucks. [The trucks] couldn't cross Baghdad, more or less, so we were trying to drive them through blockades and past IED corridors and things like that, trying to get fuel trucks to the north of Iraq. [The insurgents] were effectively cutting off our line of supply. And so we would just drive all over the goddamn country. That was fun. ... You'd have to force yourself to stay awake. It's 130 degrees. You're in your full kit. Trying to stay awake. ... And of course nothing's happening until it happens. Then it's already too late. It happens so quickly."
A lot of the civilians sending those packages have no idea what soldiers need.
In places like Helmand, soldiers have only what they've brought with them. And in some extreme cases, that's nothing more than soldier gear. These days, due to government cutbacks, many soldiers are sent in the field with strict instructions not to bring anything personal — to cut down on shipping costs — and the conex containers that would normally be sent along with personal gear and other supplies aren't available, because of reduced funding for the war. For the soldiers, their only relief comes in the form of care packages sent to them by civilians Stateside. The downside: A lot of the civilians sending those packages have no idea what soldiers need.
Machuga tells a story of a care package he received from the Girl Scouts, filled with baby wipes and foot powder packed along with boxes of their famous cookies. By the time the package arrived in Iraq, the cookies, stewing in the overheated environment, mingling with the aroma of baby wipes, tasted like soap.
"It's cooking in the desert sun at some logistics hub for a month or two before it gets to wherever you're at," Machuga says. "When it finally does catch up, you're like, 'OK, this is all right, right on!' And then it's just like ... Ugh. ... They just don't know. There's no way they can. These organizations have been in place for years at this point, and this is just how they do business. So why would they think that they would be doing anything differently?"
The process is brutal, and many packages don't survive the trip.
Care packages sent to soldiers overseas must fit into a box no more than 20 inches by 20 inches by 20 inches, and weighing no more than 70 pounds. There is no UPS in a combat zone. All packages are delivered courtesy of the Department of Defense, shipped overseas alongside food and ammunition. These 20-inch by 20-inch by 20-inch, under 70-pound boxes originate at shipping facilities stateside, addressed to Mr. or Ms. American Soldier, care of the U.S. Military, and are then placed on a plane or a boat or a truck (sometimes all three) and, eventually, deposited in a warehouse in a staging area for whatever part of the world that soldier happens to be serving in. Which, these days, is often a desert in the Middle East.
The process is brutal, and many packages don't survive the trip. Finding containers sturdy enough to withstand the abuse, yet large enough to contain a generous care package of games and consoles is one of Machuga's biggest struggles. Stout plastic containers have sloped sides, or reinforcements that make it harder to stack square and rectangular things, like games. The decision is often to either send a container he knows will survive, but will contain a lot of dead space and fewer goods, or a cardboard box that might disintegrate en route.
It's an example of the type of conundrum that soldiers must deal with but that the general population just never considers. Like the trouble with shipping soap. The soap you buy in the grocery store is packaged in a container designed to survive the relatively gentle process of being shipped from one air-conditioned place to the next, to survive long enough to arrive in your bathroom then be discarded. Military goods must survive much more arduous journeys to many more unforgiving environments. Places your soap wouldn't cut it, because it's not designed to. That's why a container of soap might cost you $1.95 at the supermarket, but that same soap designed for the military might run you 10 times that.
Machuga points out another item in his vast inventory as an example of something sent to soldiers without a lot of thought. It's a box full of toiletries, like toothpaste and disposable razors. The kinds of things you might absently toss into a Christmas stocking, because everyone uses them, and why not? Useful, sure, but not fun. Not something that will keep you going, emotionally, when you're surrounded by wire and getting shot at.
"While I was in Iraq, we got a really lousy care package," Machuga says. "We got a crate full of third-hand Harlequin romance novels. Which was one of those ... yeah. It was a real bummer."
Machuga and his troops didn't read the books, but they did manage to squeeze some enjoyment out of them. They took the lusty romance novels to the confiscated arms range, where soldiers test-fire captured enemy weapons. Each novel then gave its life for the enjoyment of the bored infantrymen, shredded to pulp by captured insurgent Kalashnikovs.
"It was like ... that was the first time where I was like, you know, this fifth grade canned food drive thing, where everyone brings in a can of yams and thinks they're doing some good, it's bullshit," Machuga says. "I wanted to do something a little more valuable to the guys."
And so, video games. Machuga believes video games are what can do the most good. Pass the most time, the most constructively. Help soldiers cope, relax and (eventually) reintegrate.
"You gotta keep guys engaged," Machuga says. "You gotta keep guys from going nuts. ... The games treat the depression and the loneliness and the sadness."
Although Machuga doesn't speak for the entire military when he says this, he knows there's truth to it. He lived it. Capt. Stephen Machuga, U.S. Army Rangers, retired, spent years trying to reintegrate to civilian life. He almost didn't make it. Video games saved him.
The Machugas, in every way that matters, are a typical military family. They live in a townhouse on the outskirts of Washington, DC, within easy reach of the web of military and government offices where a guy like Machuga can exercise his security clearance for a civilian-sized paycheck. The couple owns two cars and a dog. Kids, maybe, some day. All American.
Machuga's wife Margo is a bright, energetic young woman from Pittsburgh. They met at Purdue, where Stephen was studying theater and Russian linguistics. They would both rather be in Pittsburgh, closer to her family, but DC is where the money is. Margo was a teacher, and is now a supervisor at nearby James Madison High School. She was also once an interior decorator, and the Machugas' immaculate house is proof. It's showroom clean, and impeccable.
And then there's Operation Supply Drop, growing like a weed in what Machuga calls the "basement," and what Margo calls "the man cave." Walk in the front door and it's the first thing you see, down a hallway, to the left of the stairs, under the sign: Man cave. There's a curtain to hide the mess. Inside, beneath the piles of games and gear choking the space, there's a fireplace and the touches of well-considered home decor that infest the remainder of the house, but here they're suffocating under the weight of the charity. One stack of donations reveals itself, upon inspection, to be camouflaging a sofa. Machuga's office hunkers in the corner, a desk covered with papers and computer gear. A gigantic monitor. An easy chair. And beside it, a treadmill with a standing desk and gaming PC attached. Machuga's "League" set-up. All surrounded by fortifications of donations.
Machuga is a lifelong gamer. He's in his mid-30s, but he looks to be in his 40s, aged prematurely, as many soldiers do. Growing up, he never planned on joining the military. He joined the ROTC while at Purdue for the extra tuition and promise of job assistance. He didn't know what to expect, but the experience changed his life.
"Before I joined the Army, I was a doughy video game playing drama geek," Machuga says. "The transformation into hard-charging Army Ranger wannabe was pretty dramatic. I went in whole cloth. I really fell in love with it. ... For a loner drama geek kid, to get picked up by a bunch of guys who are all into physical fitness and things like that, it was a tough couple years, but I transitioned over. That was where I wanted to be. I'm glad as hell I did it."
Machuga's 13-month tour in Iraq was during one of the most intense periods of the war.
Margo was a friend of a friend. They orbited each other's lives for years and eventually started dating. By the time Machuga graduated and shipped out, it had gotten serious. His first experience of military life was serving as a liaison to the Russian army in Kosovo. It was orderly. There was a plan. He expected to finish up his tour, cash out and rejoin civilian life. Maybe marry Margo. Then the towers fell.
Machuga and his wife Margo at their home in Virginia
Machuga was three months away from rotating out when he was "stop lossed." Meaning his tour was extended indefinitely. Meaning civilian life would have to wait. Machuga took the transition hard. He lost his mind a little, told Margo to not bother waiting for him and traded a cushy office job for a posting in Iraq. If he was going to war, he said, he was going to fight, and he didn't want Margo to have to go through what wartime widows often do. She should move back to Pittshburgh, be with her family and move on. Soldier Stephen had shit to do.
"He was saying, 'Well, maybe we should break up,'" Margo says. "'God forbid anything happen to me. I don't want you to be a widow, or engaged and something happens.'"
Machuga's 13-month tour in Iraq was during one of the most intense periods of the war. Before the capture of Saddam Hussein, when practically the entirety of the country was a roiling inferno of instability and death. Almost immediately, Machuga had a change of heart about the break up — and going to war. He realized he'd made a "terrible mistake."
"I was like ... 'I wanna get me some war!'" he says. "I switched up with a guy who was going to 2nd Infantry and I decided, 'All right, I'm gonna make this a memorable tour. I want to do something good. I want to help.' Because I had missed out on 9/11, because I had deployed to Kosovo as it was happening. My unit ended up going to Afghanistan right after that, and I ... missed out on all that. ... Three weeks after we crossed the line of departure, I'm like ... What the fuck was I thinking?"
Machuga called Margo, begged her to take him back. She agreed, then set about waiting for him to come home.
"I'd go to work and people would say, 'Oh, there's all these bombings today, did you hear?' And I'm like, 'Don't tell me that! I don't want to hear it!'" says Margo. "Because there's no way we can control what's going on. Sometimes I wouldn't hear from him for several days."
"One of the big takeaways from my time in Iraq, I'll never forget it ... I remember being in Kuwait before the line of departure, when we were getting ready to roll over the border," says Machuga. "I remember going into a portajohn. Those things are graffiti magnets. People write all over the sides inside of them. I'll never forget. I saw it said, don't worry, you'll have stories for the rest of your life. It was one of those reminders. You're going to get through this, you'll get on the other side of this, and boy, you'll have some great stories when this is all over with. They were right."
Machuga spent six months driving up and down Iraq's busted up, probably bombed roads, waiting to get blown up. Then he transferred to a base posting, and then came home. And that's when the trouble started.
Driving a vehicle is driving a vehicle, for the most part. The differences are in the driving conditions.
On the highway, you can usually expect your fellow drivers to obey traffic laws. They are, after all, as invested in their own safety as you are yours. Lights turn red, people stop. It pays to make sure, of course. Accidents happen. But driving on the road in America is generally safe. Sometimes, in some places, there are deer. Those don't obey signals.
In combat zones the experience of driving is radically different. There generally are no traffic laws except the most important, imposed by soldiers themselves: "don't stop." In Iraq, the roads are mostly made of dirt, which is easy to dig into to plant bombs. And there's trash. A lot of it. Everywhere. At all times. Perfect for hiding a bomb.
Machuga spent most of his tour in Iraq sitting in the command seat of a Stryker armored vehicle. As the Captain, Machuga was the brain of the outfit. He had a driver and a gunner and a radio man, but his job was to care for all of them, and everyone else under this command. This meant that every pile of trash that could be a bomb was his to agonize over and scrutinize. Every bump in the road, his to decide whether to avoid or run over. The decision to stop or keep going — his. When Machuga finally returned home from the war this burden had not left him. Driving anywhere, for any reason, even in the relatively safer environment of the American roadway was an emotional challenge. Especially on trash day.
"[T]rash day would come along and you'd see piles of shit on the side of the road ... it was like ... 'I'm in the United States. It's not going to blow up. We're fine. Right?' I just couldn't work around it," he says. "When you're rolling outside the wire all the time and dealing with that shit, and then you come back home and it's just another day. People are blissfully unaware that this whole other thing is going on. 'Let's go to the mall and get a cheese dog.' It's very strange."
For Machuga, reintegrating with civilian life was one of the most stressful and confusing experiences he's ever endured. He says he understands why some guys choose to go back in. He struggled with anxiety. Margo insisted he see someone, but the military's unofficial code of silence around mental health issues meant he'd be risking his security clearance — which was his livelihood. If he asked for help and word got back to command he'd never work for the government again.
Machuga went to an off-post clinic. He agonized over the decision, but he knew he needed help, and he hoped that at a civilian clinic he could get it without word getting back to the military. But even there, miles from base, he couldn't bring himself to put his name on the paperwork.
"I was standing in the waiting room of the local clinic. ... There were tears in my eyes. Thinking, 'I cannot write this down, because somebody is going to find out about this. My career would be over,'" he says.
Machuga walked out the door. He decided he'd rather struggle alone. He turned instead to video games.
He realized he'd always been a writer, keeping journals, that sort of thing. After losing himself back into the world of video games, he decided to turn his mind to writing about them, joined up at a website and then eventually started his own. In the process he rediscovered the healing power of video games. The ability to lose himself in a virtual world, to pick up a game and play for hours that seemed like only an instant. This allowed him the space he needed from his trauma to process it, reorganize and rediscover himself. Over time, he re-centered and felt capable again of living a civilian life. And he saw, through video games, his chance to make a difference for others.
"Gaming was a huge part of it. It always was, in the past," he says. "It was always what I'd go to when anything would go wrong or nuts, when things would start getting crazy in my life. I would just immediately go back to video games. ... [Video games] definitely helped me transition back into reality, versus being over there. Because it's a different world. ... As soon as you turn off the machine, it all comes washing back. You're like, oh, that's right. Ah, I forgot. But it works great.
"And that's what I'm trying to provide these guys."
Machuga knows a guy, his Stryker driver in Iraq, who didn't make the transition. He got out of the military in 2005, then spent the next five years trying to reintegrate and failing. He reenlisted, got sent to Afghanistan.
"Anybody who's been out of the military has that point in their life where they're kind of floating," Machiga says. "They're just like, they're not happy with civilian life, because there's nothing like the military out there. You find yourself driving past enlistment stations and thinking, 'I should just stop by. I'm not actually going to do it. I'm just going to go inside and see what's going on.' And he fell into that trap."
Machuga wanted to send his buddy something to help him pass the time, so he put together a care package of video games. With help from Activision's Dan Amrich, he scraped together a set of Guitar Hero and DJ Hero games and shipped them out as a standard 20x20x20, under 70-pound care package, plenty to keep a soldier occupied. His driver loved it. And it got the other soldiers talking.
"Suddenly a dozen guys from his unit start going, 'Hey, this is great, we could use some love too!' I was like, 'Oh shit, what have I started?'" says Machuga. "So I started packing up what was left and sent that as well. That's what snowballed the whole thing."
That was three years ago. Since then, Machuga has sent out 30 "drops" all over the world. Soldiers send in their requests personally and the drops go out addressed directly to them. At first it was first-come, first-served. These days there are more people asking than Machuga can answer. There's a waiting list, and he has to decide who gets a drop and who doesn't.
"I'll rack and stack based on location and MOS and things like that, but when you've got some Hurt Locker guys running around, EOD techs in Afghanistan picking up old RPGs or old IEDs that could be live or whatever, those guys have the priority," Machuga says. "I have to go that way and then ... There's only so many. ... We've had requests sit unanswered for months and months. I just can't get to everybody. We prioritize based on location and what guys are doing and how close they are to the fight, so to speak."
Machuga packs the drops himself. Send the emails himself. Begs for donations himself. Operation Supply Drop, for all intents and purposes, is Machuga. He has a partner in Austin, Texas, a man named Glenn Banton, who has some contacts and marketing expertise. Banton takes some of the load off, but it's still Machuga's show. And it will be until he can afford to hire someone else, or expand.
And that's where the phone comes in. Machuga checks it every few minutes. Over lunch he fondles it, keeping it close, waiting. A call comes in from Banton about a contact at a major game publisher. Someone who wants to work with Operation Supply Drop. Someone Banton sweet-talked and reeled. It's a good contact. Could change a lot of things, but it's not the good news Machuga is waiting for.
Earlier in the year Machuga got an opportunity to partner up with Cloud Imperium, the maker of the yet-to-be released game Star Citizen. Still in development, Star Citizen has so far amassed an unheard of $29 million in crowd funding, driven, in part, by its creator, Chris Roberts. Roberts created the Wing Commander series, which set the world on fire two and a half decades ago. Now he's hoping to do the same with the help of his fans, and they've lined up to throw money like no one has ever seen.
Every once in a while Cloud Imperium will sell an in-game item for their game that has not yet been made. Something players will — eventually — be able to use. They sell impossibly well. One of these was a space ship offered on Veteran's Day, with proceeds to be divided between Operation Supply Drop and another veteran's charity. After Cloud Imperium has counted it all up, done the math, and decided who gets which cut, Machuga will get a phone call, then, maybe, a check. And that's why he checks his phone like a man looking at his watch, waiting for a train. Why he looks to see who's called, sighs, and keeps packing his drops, trying to stay busy.
In the coming months, Machuga plans to visit veteran's hospitals, maybe as part of a larger campaign. That's where he sees the future of Operation Supply Drop. Reaching out wherever he can help. Making it easier for guys to reintegrate. Easier than he had it maybe. And to use whatever he can amass through donations or from Cloud Imperium to beef up his operation to streamline his process of deciding who gets what, where.
"That's part of this big push for 2014, to not only monetize the charity, but turn it into something where we can prioritize these requests automatically," he says. "[So] it's not going through my e-mail, and I have to write these guys back and see if their address is still correct and this that and the other. We're working on that right now. It's really tough. You get these really heartfelt requests. I just got three yesterday. Yesterday. That's great, wonderful, I'd love to get to you, but you have 60 other guys ahead of you in various places."
"I should be upstairs with my wife doing something. Watching television. Spending time. No, down here sending out emails, writing to the crew."
Machuga looks at Operation Supply Drop as a startup. He works on it night and day, nurturing it. Bunkered in his man cave full of games and taking the small steps that could lead to big steps. Agonizing.
"Like for anybody who's done a startup, you know when you're screwing off," he says. "As the driving force, I could be sending out emails right now. I could be sending thank yous. I could be working on this or that or the other thing. I could be doing inventory. There's a million things to be done. So when you're fucking around, you feel every minute. I am on the company's dime. Even when it's two in the morning. I should be in bed. I should be upstairs with my wife doing something. Watching television. Spending time. No, down here sending out emails, writing to the crew."
And here he is. The drops are getting assembled, slowly. The 8-bit Salute brought in enough donations for Machuga to send out 12 drops, one of which is going to a navy ship. The sailors don't have room for game consoles or TVs, so they asked for handhelds. Machuga has a stack of PlayStation Vitas to send them. They'll probably also get some shirts. He has a lot of those, too. Everyone else gets a self-contained gaming rig with a small LCD screen and room for a console, a controller and some games in a hard-sized carrying case. Plus an assortment of whatever else will fit. Yet after a day of keeping busy, the phone call does not come. The waiting continues.
For her part, Margo is amazed at the growth of the charity so far, and hopeful that the help Machuga has received from games can be shared with others.
"We'd mention it in our Christmas cards, 'Check out Steve's new charity!' But never thinking it would necessarily amount to much." she says. "Maybe we'd get a couple of care packages out, some interest. ... Then he started going to [video game trade show] E3. The more he went to these places and collected business cards and talked to people, it's amazing how much interest there was in supporting it. ... It's kind of unreal, when I stop and think about it. We've grown with it, the past few years, but not expecting that it would grow by such leaps and bounds. I know he'd love to make it his full-time job if he could, so that we could sustain our family on it and have him do that. Which, maybe some day? I don't know. We're hoping for good news from this call."
It all comes back to the call.
Everyone who runs a business, big or small, has a "what I'll do with the money" plan. Everyone who plays the lottery, expects a bonus or has a basement full of junk to sell. Everyone, really. Machuga's just happens to involve helping troops and shipping games. He says it over and over, reciting his plan like a mantra. Operation Supply Drop has raised over half a million dollars in donations so far, but the call from Cloud Imperium could change everything. It's so close, Machuga can feel it.
"People ask why I do this," Machuga says. "This is the day where it all pays off, right now, this is all the emails and all the harassing of PR folks. This is where it all pays off, getting those inventories back and saying, this is everything we were able to send those guys. This is pretty awesome. And then getting those pictures back from the guys with the gift boxes over there. It's an amazing feeling.
"I never thought I was gonna be this guy. I love the games industry. I love video gaming. It's always been this ... I've always wanted to be a part of it, but I did not expect this at all. This is all I want to do now. ... There's something here, obviously. I just need to focus on kindling that spark. We'll see."
Now if only the phone would ring.
Images: Stephen Machuga, Operation Supply Drop, Vox Media
Editing: Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Tyson Whiting, Jake Lear