In the early months of 2012, a soldier from the Indiana National Guard's 713th Engineer Company stationed in Afghanistan sent a note asking for help:
My unit and I just suffered a HORRIFIC loss in just the first nine weeks of a 12-month tour out in Afghanistan, so I was hoping that a care package from you guys would help ease the pain a little for the guys that are still here in the fight. I was in the 8th truck; five soldiers were in the 3rd truck of our convoy. We were all out on a mission when they ran over an IED [improvised explosive device]. We were able to save one of my soldiers in that truck. THANK GOD FOR THAT!
The soldier, hoping to help his team recover from the tragedy — which occurred during what one official called a "very important" but "extremely dangerous" mission — knew what was needed:
- Any fighting or boxing games
- Any sports games
- Guitar Hero
- 2 extra PS3 controllers
- 2 extra Xbox controllers
- Computer games
- External hard drive
- Gaming mouse
- Gaming headsets
- Gaming keyboard
His request was answered. The video game-filled care package that eventually arrived came from a non-profit called Operation Supply Drop. OSD, as it's known, was started two years ago by Captain Stephen "Shanghai Six" Machuga, a former Army Airborne Ranger who had served eight years in the Army, including a 13-month stint in Iraq.
Machuga has transformed the basement of his Washington, D.C.-area home into a kind of warehouse for donated video games and gear. On his website, he takes requests from soldiers stationed overseas while he, his wife and a few volunteers try to send out the requested games and equipment as quickly as possible.
On Saturday, OSD hosts its "8-Bit Salute to Veterans" — a nationwide video game donation drive designed to raise video games, game equipment and funds to send to troops in Afghanistan as well as to veterans recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Army Sgt. Chaene Kingrey — who spent a year in Afghanistan as well as a year in Iraq — is another recipient of one of Machuga's packages. Up in the northern Laghman Province of Afghanistan, he and his three-man team worked 12-hour days, their base taking incoming fire just about every other day.
"You really cannot put into words how they helped," he told NBC News in an email interview. "It helped me a lot coping with everything. There were many times where stress was building, but after sitting down and playing a couple of games it just reminded me of home."
Foot powder, cookies and Harlequin novels
It was Machuga's own experiences serving in Iraq that inspired him to find a way to get video games to troops working in some of Afghanistan's toughest locales.
He said that when he was in Iraq, "we would get care packages from well-intended church groups and knitting circles, but it was spotty at best. Foot powder gets packed in with cookies and you get foot powder-flavored cookies."
The problem is, well-meaning donors often just don't understand what the troops really need, he said. For example, his infantry company once received a large donation from a library — it was a crate full of third-hand Harlequin romance novels. This for a bunch of 18- to 25-year-old guys.
"We did end up getting some use out of them," Machuga admitted. "As targets on the confiscated weapons range."
As an avid gamer himself, he knew just how enormously helpful something a bit more ... interactive ... could be.
"Nothing made that 13 months (in Iraq) fly by more than video gaming," he said. "It absolutely took my mind off where I was, what I was doing, and gave me a taste of home."
Video games to the rescue
In the past two years, Machuga has sent 25 video video game care packages to places like Nasiriyah, Iraq and Kandahar, Afghanistan and another six are heading out to Afghanistan for Veterans Day. Each package includes about $1,900-worth of games and hardware.
"Folks who have received our care packages and are used to the regular wool socks and tins of cookies are absolutely shocked stupid when one of our care packages full of thousands of dollars of video games shows up at mail call," Machuga said. "It genuinely raises the morale of an entire platoon/company."
Kingrey agreed. "Being able to just sit down and play video games you like with people you're deployed with is among the best things you can do while overseas."
To give you an idea of the kinds of places these games are going, one care package was on its way to a base in Helmand, Afghanistan, when an improvised explosive device (IED) hit the mail convoy carrying it. Everyone was OK but the vehicle — and the care package — was destroyed.
Machuga believes games can help soldiers be more optimistic and more resilient while serving in stressful situations as well as help them deal with with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder when they come home. That's why he has extended the program to patients at Walter Reed.
"I for one had a little trouble adjusting when I got back home," he said. "Every trash pick day for a while made my nerves jangle. I would have trouble driving down the street, looking for wires coming out of them and expecting one of them to blow up."
(For more on video games easing soldiers' pain, see the video from NBC's Rock Center below.)
8-Bit Salute to Veterans
While many game developers and publishers both big and small have been very supportive of Operation Supply Drop, donating games and equipment for the troops, the demand outstrips the need. Saturday's "8-Bit Salute to Veterans" events are being held in cities across the United States to help raise funds for and collect video games and consoles to be sent to U.S. troops and veterans. (For locations and more information about what's happening at each location and how to donate, check this link.)
Donations of games and cash are welcome. Cash will cover shipping, handing and insuring of 70 pounds of games and gear being flown to the other side of the planet, and will be used to fill game requests they don't have.
And if you're wondering what kind of games our troops most frequently request — the answer may (or may not) surprise you. Machuga explains that, yes, people who are getting shot at for a living really do find relief in playing games about getting shot at.
"First-person shooters," Machuga said. "That's right, every single, and I mean every single wish list has a request for the latest Call of Duty, Battlefield or Halo, and usually all three."
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.