Operation Supply Drop Uses Video Games to Help Soldiers

by Blaine Flamig, Computer Power User

Operation Supply Drop delivers care packages of supplies to active duty military personnel, military families, and veterans. As Glenn Banton, CEO at the military-based non-profit organization, says, though, these aren’t the care packages “your mom sent you at Cub Scouts camp.” Instead, they’re stuffed with gaming loot, including consoles, games, peripherals, T-shirts, and other swag. Via an OSD drop, it’s not inconceivable a soldier in the back of a Humvee in transport via C-17 could be gaming on an Xbox, Banton says.

Operation Supply Drop has sent hundreds of supply missions to soldiers overseas.

Army veteran Capt. Stephen Machuga started OSD in 2010. To date, OSD has delivered hundreds of supply drops to deployed service members, including U.S., NATA, and ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) soldiers. OSD also works with military hospitals and MWRs (morale, welfare, and recreation) facilities. In April, the organization announced its programs had reached 60,000 soldiers, their families, and veterans, including 24,000 in Q1 2016 alone.

An OSD care package for a battalion-sized unit might entail a 20-gallon bucket including a console or two, several dozen games, peripherals, possibly handhelds, board games, and various swag. Larger drops for hospitals and MWRs take all this up several notches in order to help the thousands who come through these facilities annually pass the time.

From the beginning, OSD’s emphasis on games has been intentional, including because OSD founders believed it could go a long way to reduce the considerable boredom soldiers often suffer through while deployed. Moreover, gaming is simply relevant to today’s generation of soldier—predominantly an 18-to-24-year-old male. “That’s really where the entire concept came from,” Banton says. “Providing generational-relevant fun for our active duty military.”
Operation Supply Drop has sent hundreds of supply missions to soldiers overseas.

OSD also utilizes gaming in its Respawn program, which explores the benefits of using gaming as an occupational therapy tool. Increasingly, OSD is also focusing heavily on issues key to veterans: mental health, homelessness, and unemployment. While supply drops help build active-duty soldiers’ morale, Banton says, the meat of OSD’s is happening through The Teams, a program made up of military and civilian volunteers in dozens of U.S. cities working to help returning soldiers transition into communities and help communities prepare for returning soldiers.

The following is a portion of our conversation with OSD CEO Glenn Banton.

Q: What’s the story behind Operation Supply Drop? What was the motivation for launching the organization?

GB: The origin came from bad care packages. I think a lot of active duty can reflect on this. You have people send you these care packages, and they’re good things, like boxes of Girl Scout Cookies, but the downside is a single private could eat an entire box of cookies in 2 minutes and forget about it 10 minutes later. Or look at the cliché of socks and all these things sent with positive intent, but is it really what your 18-to-24-year-old predominantly male really needs when he’s overseas? I mean, he can only use so many pairs of socks.

The care package that really kind of planted the seed for what became Operation Supply Drop was a box of Harlequin romance novels. This has almost turned into legend and mythology to where I’m not even sure what’s true anymore, but essentially it was sent by nice people in Middle America from this library as a care package to the troops. Upon receipt, it was kind of looked at like, “What the heck? Why send a bunch of Harlequin romance novels to some dudes roaming around the desert after bad guys?” You say, “Well, the intent was there, but it’s failing to realize what does your 18-to-24-year-old predominantly male want or need?” And it’s not really that much different than what your 18-to-24-year-old civilian male back home looks at, which is different forms of entertainment.

Many years later, [Operation Supply Drop] ended up turning into an organization that sends video game care packages because [games] are generation-relevant. It’s not much different than how your prior eras of military personnel would play Spades or read comics or whatever. Video gaming is very much pervasive [among military personnel], as it is in the general population. I even talk to a lot of Desert Storm-era veterans who had an original Game Boy in their front pocket as they were storming through the desert of Iraq, which is a major difference because those type of portable devices didn’t exist prior to that point in time.

Now, here we are in 2016 with Xboxes and things like a GAEMS case, this semi-rugged case that has an HD monitor in it and can hold an Xbox, so you can actually play it while you’re in the back of a Humvee flying in a C-17. It’s one of those things that I keep coming back to: It’s generationally relevant, and that’s really where the entire concept came from—providing generational-relevant fun for our active duty military.

Q: Military personnel in general seem to have a strong connection with video games. Can you speak to that?

GB: I think part of it, again, I keep coming back to demographics. I’m a data and psychology guy when you really look at it. That’s what I love about what we do. We do a lot of things in mass, and we can utilize data and psychology to an advantage to support more active duty and veterans. To your point about military seeming to gravitate more to gaming, if you look at a typical veteran right now, he’s typically a 29-year-old white male. And if you look at one of the largest populations of gamers, that kind of aligns very well. Now, mind you, women play games as much as men if you look at recent surveys and data from organizations like the ESA, but this particular demographic really likes gaming.

One thing I like to point out, though, when explaining the value of gaming to the individual that’s currently serving is it’s almost not about the game or the software. It’s not Madden. It’s not Call of Duty. It’s not the Xbox. It’s not PlayStation. It’s about what [games] provide: escape, camaraderie, unit cohesion, competition, things that are just craved when you’re bored. The general public often thinks that when somebody is over in Afghanistan, they’re constantly in firefights and the day is just full of excitement and reaction, when in reality it’s mostly the kind of hurry-up-and-wait mentality or not doing anything. You need to fill that time with something so that you don’t lose your mind.

I always paint this picture of if you were to provide gaming to 100 troops, maybe 10 of those troops would identify themselves as hardcore gamers. They’re the ones who probably brought their own systems with them. That’s what they do. That’s one of the things they define themselves by. You look at the next 40% or so, and they’re the type who might like to play games as much as that 10% but to them it’s just one of their activities. They might play games. They might play catch with the football. They might play chess or a bunch of different things, but gaming is something they certainly enjoy.

Then you look at the next 40%. They play games because they’re there and available. They might be the type who when they come back home from their deployment, they’re not necessarily going to play. They might play with their kids, but it’s just not their thing. But when you’re in-country, what else are you going to do? Your option is to sit around and do nothing or play a FIFA tournament with your buddies. You’re going to play the FIFA tournament because it’s fun. And the last 10%, gaming isn’t their thing. They’d rather read or work out or do Tai Chi. I’m kind of broad stroking that, but really what we’re always looking at is the middle or 80% and what it looks like.

The flipside is how gaming impacts the veteran. We’ve done a lot of work and actually have a program called Respawn. It’s led by our chief medical officer Erik Johnson. He recently retired from the Army. He’s an occupational therapist by trade, most recently as the chief of the burn center at Brooke Army Medical Center. Essentially, for the past decade, he has been utilizing gaming as a substitute for some traditional occupational therapy methods—not like new age stuff where you’re trying to fit a square peg through a round hole but literally looking at the needs to measure cognitive processing, psycho-social interaction, balance, range of motion, and instead of using some crazy but boring medical tool or process you can essentially substitute a Wii or a balance board or Rock Band or brain games on the iPad and get the same measurement. In this particular context, we always use the phrase “the healing power of gaming.” It becomes a little bit more than what it is. Again, it’s not about the games but what the games are able to provide, which is escape and to do something fun whilst still adhering to a rehabilitation plan and schedule.

Q: How did OSD’s work in the area where video games and occupational therapy meet start?

GB: When we kicked it off, Erik and I were part of a med tech panel at SXSW. We kind of came to this conclusion after speaking to a bunch of medical professionals that we have nothing to lose in preaching that message. Essentially, it’s an alternative therapy. Occupational therapy at its core is respected and disrespected in the same way that chiropractors are in a way. Some people see it as not truly medicine and others think it’s great. We just look at what gaming provides. It’s a tool in the toolbox. At the end of the day, what we provide to recovering veterans—whether it’s social support or navigating them to different resources for job or different care or assisting a military hospital and their staff with utilizing games as another tool in the toolbox—we have nothing to lose.

If Erik tried the same thing at a traditional medical facility, he’d face a potential uphill battle from—I’m being a little bit biased here—a potentially skewed older crowd of professionals who might not appreciate it or respect it or who are part of that “games are bad, games are evil, games ruin your brain” crowd, which data more and more says that’s not in fact the case. And there’s more gamification within everyday tools that the general population uses than most people even realize. We might as well take advantage of the great hardware and psychology associated with interacting with this hardware to help, initially, vets but also with making any data we have available to the general population so that grandma or mom or dad who is suffering from something can hopefully utilize gaming as a way to get better.

Q: Who is the team behind OSD?

GB: We are a very lean team. We have I’d say four full-time employees. We probably have another dozen or so volunteer staff. We have a strong board of directors and around 15 or so advisory board members who are very hands on. It makes it tough because if you look at organizations similar to ours that do similar output—mind you, I think through our programs we’ve directly supported more than 40,000 vets and families and active duty personnel just year to date—most organizations would have a dozen full-time employees. At this point, we need a dozen. But really what it comes down to it utilizing each of our individual strengths as best as possible and then reaching out kind of one individual at a time. To use the cliché, one heart, one mind at a time to preach this way of supporting veterans.

Someone asked me probably six weeks ago, “What’s your niche?” I said, “Well, with what we do specifically with active duty, the niche is sort of gaming.” That’s kind of the sexy exterior. But that program at the end of the day is very much just a supply chain and logistics challenge. We have a demand for that that’s just obscene, all the way down to the unit-and squad-level for deployed personnel. We do a lot of work directly with bases in the U.S. and outside the U.S. We also do a lot of work with the Canadian military, the British military. Really what it comes down to is how do we take a request and fulfill it with the right hardware and software and items as possible?

The majority of what we focus on from the big picture of what Operation Supply Drop is are the big three veteran issues: mental health, homelessness, and unemployment. How we really approach that is through The Teams program. The Teams program has a great story of where it came from. It’s a byproduct of the returning soldiers we supported over the years through the supply drops. It started happening in about 2014, and it was bizarre because at that particular time we were very much sending video game packages downrange. Period. That’s it. What happened, as those individuals were coming back home, they didn’t know where to get help. And I’m not talking about help with “Hey, how can I get a free Xbox?” I’m talking “I need a job.” “I don’t know how to use my VA benefits.” “I’m homeless or almost homeless.” “I don’t have any friends.” Typical adjustment and transition challenges.

From a leadership perspective we really strongly believe that we never turn anyone away. That doesn’t mean that as an organization we’re a medical organization that’s going to start treating people’s mental health, but we realized at that time we needed to start arranging very solid partnerships with those organizations that were niche. So, this organization over here that helps navigate the VA challenges. This organization over here that has private sector mental health support that utilizes the VA or TRICARE structure for coverage. Or this over here that does specialized outings. Out of that whole process, one of the things that didn’t exist was the true kind of support network. The social network. The “get outside of your house and physically be involved with other individuals”—not dissimilar to the need that the VFW did a great job of addressing with especially our WWII and Vietnam veterans. But the VFW has had a challenge on a broad scale with reaching out, again, to this generation.

So, really what we ended up doing was filling that gap and creating this program with the main purpose being continuing to serve your community, being a veteran that’s visibly serving the community, but also a place for civilians to get involved. Because when you particularly look at the employment side of things, if you don’t have civilian buy-in, you’re not going to find or create the network that gets to those jobs.

If you look at the end-to-end story arch of what Operation Supply Drop does, we work with active duty and the military families. We provide funding. We make fun where there is none. We do a lot of morale-boosting events on post. But essentially we’re trying to expose the active duty world to the community that they don’t realize they need yet. And then as they’re transitioning into that period where they’re coming out of the military, we’re able to connect them with—in some cases directly, in other cases through partners—to things like professional development, resources and navigation for handling extraordinary medical needs and navigating the VA system, and the next step is the community support side. It’s answering the question, “How do I make friends again? How do I create that tribe feeling that I had when I was serving?” At this point, we’re in 40 cities around the globe doing exactly what I’m describing at various scales.

Supply drops include consoles, video and board games, and various types of gaming swag.

Q: What goes into completing a supply drop, and what do the packages include?

GB: One thing I’d say about the supply drops, when I say we’ve sent out over 550 supply drops, some people are in awe of that. Some people are like, “Well, that’s not a lot.” Well, a supply drop is not like what mom sent you at Cub Scouts camp. A supply drop, at a minimum, is a 20-gallon bucket full of what I’d call “gaming and nerdy goodness” and it can be as large as 10 to 20 packages depending upon the type of organization we’re supporting.

When we send them to an overseas deployed unit, typically anything smaller than battalion-sized for the most part is standardized. It has a console. A lot of what we send overseas is still the last-gen. So, like Xbox 360, PS3. A lot of that is due to connectivity challenges. We put that inside a GAEMS case. They’re one of our strongest partners and amazingly supportive of the military community. We’ll typically then put in a dozen to two dozen games for that particular platform. A couple board games. Dice games. Sometimes, there are handhelds like a PlayStation Vita or a Game Boy in there.

The larger [supply drops], they’re a completely different story. More and more we’re getting contacted by an entire MWR [morale, welfare, and recreation] center or even in some cases, the facilities management for all of those on a base, like Camp Lejeune. In those [drops], there might be anywhere from two to eight consoles. A couple few hundred games. There might be multiple boxes of board games because they’re having 1,500 to 15,000 people coming through these facilities on a monthly or sometimes annual basis. We really ask the facilities, “What do you need?” Some might be more geared to something like the Single Marine Program or Single Airman Program, where it’s going to be your 22 to 24-year-old single male for most cases, so we’re going to lean more toward one type of product there vs. other facilities might have more families come through them, so we’re going to put a Kinect in there and more family things. For the most part, it’s consoles, tons of board games, T-shirts, comic books, and then other random stuff that makes sense for this generation.

Q: What types of reactions do you get after delivering supply drops?

GB: Shock and awe is kind of what it is. I always bring up this story, it was at an on-post event we did. We brought a bunch of stuff for a morale-building event, so like a Christmas party or something. Oftentimes, we bring games, high-end keyboards, and headsets as door prizes to military personnel and their families. One of the prizes was a peripheral, like a dancing pad for a Wii. So it wasn’t a Wii. It wasn’t even the dancing game. It was the peripheral to be able to play the dancing game on the Wii. The reaction from the individual who won, you would have thought we gave him the key to a brand new Escalade.

The point being, everything we send is highly appreciated because it’s something to do. It’s something to keep your mind off stuff. Mind you, the average E5, E6 in the Army, he doesn’t make a lot of money. He has some spending money. There are obviously some benefits they get. For the most part, especially for the family, they don’t have a lot of walking around money to go buy an Xbox or some games for it. So when we’re able to provide a console and essentially the portable TV and the games for a group of people to play together, they absolutely love it. A follow-up question is “What are some of the troops doing with the stuff when they get it?” which I think would be somewhat surprising to some people. I’ve spent a lot of time working with Third Cav Brave Rifles out of Fort Hood, and one of my buddies was first lieutenant in that unit on their deployment to Afghanistan a couple years ago. While they were downrange, they did a FIFA tournament and a Gears of War tournament where the winners were able to not have whatever their crappy duty was for the day. The upper part of their command structure was taking their responsibilities for the day. So not only did they have that fun and a camaraderie building experience, but there was a huge upside to it because they were able to relax for the day. ■

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