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Unsung at PAX

Red Thomas Posted:
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Red Thomas talks about a part of PAX that often flies under the radar and notes how some booths at PAX are too close to the feels for comfort.  PAX is all about fun, but there’s a serious side to it that flies past a lot of folks.  

There’s a side of PAX that everyone who attends knows about, but no one ever really discusses much.  Every PAX has a number of charity and nonprofit booths where fellow geeks educate each other not only about problems that exist in our communities, but also call attention to some of the solutions that we’ve created to address them.

This is honestly one of my favorite parts of PAX because it’s a chance to talk to some of the most motivated and impactful members of our community.  It’s easy to get excited about a new game, and the marketing pretty much writes itself.  It’s a lot harder to create interest around the efforts to mitigate problems like veteran suicide rate, cancer research, or any of the other many great projects I’ve seen at PAX South over the years.

Obviously, efforts related to veterans usually catch my eye quickly since I’m prior-service Army.  The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that as many as twenty-two veterans die by suicide every day, and that number doesn’t seem to be going down despite nearly a decade of enhanced efforts to improve the mental health of veterans.


That’s why projects like Stack Up always catch my attention, and also why I like putting a spotlight on them when I can.  CPT(ret) Stephen Machuga talked with me about how his efforts to help active duty and veteran members of the military community got started.  During a deployment to Iraq, his infantry company got a care package consisting of used romance novels.  Once the hilarity wore off, and by then I’m sure at least a few paperbacks went mysteriously missing despite copious bravado and denials, Machuga had a realization.

There are a lot of civilians that clearly care a lot about what’s happening with those in service down range.  These folks all want to help badly, but they just don’t have the experience to know what folks deployed to a combat zone need or want.  A few years later and a request from a deployed buddy resulted in a load of donated games and consoles.

Ten years later, and we have Stack Up.  It’s not just about shipping entertainment to the Joes at random FOBs anymore, though.  The project has grown and taken on a number of other military and veteran support operations, as well.

Source: https://stackup.org/services/supply-crates/

“In Iraq, our infantry company received a crate full of third-hand romance novels from a library… it was there I realized: people wanted to help veterans, but they just didn’t know what we wanted.” – CPT(ret) Machuga

One project is to provide gaming systems to veterans through the PC “VETROFIT” Support program.  There are plenty of studies proving the value of all forms of gaming for dealing with and mitigating the symptoms of traumatic stress.  MMO’s in particular have become well known in the veteran community as a way to socialize with other prior-service folks and as an effective way to reintegrate with civilian life.  The suspension of disbelief inherent to video games gives vets an opportunity to rewire their minds from the high-adrenaline and detail-focused combat mindset to a more stable and less tensed state of mind.  This program helps to ensure more vets have the opportunity to experience the healing power of PC gaming.

Air Assaults

Another project the group has taken on is called “Air Assaults.”  These are all-expense-paid trips for veterans to geek cultural events like PAX, ComicCon, and other conventions.  These events pull veterans out of potential isolation and help them to connect with other members of the veteran community.  A problem many vets have, and I myself have struggled with the same problem, is reintegrating with the civilian community.

Military service, and especially service in combat theaters, alters the way a person perceives and reacts to information.  In part, it’s a survival necessity and ensures Soldiers react to threats in a manner most likely to ensure their survival, but there’s also a cultural element to it.  In the military, everyone operates from a standard frame of reference.  Certain things are true and right, and there’s a process for everything.

Source: https://stackup.org/services/air-assaults/

Despite technology, it can be hard for vets to find each other post-transition.  Project Air Assault helps with that.

Here's just one really easy example.  Take two crowds of people with a door between where the crowds are and where they want to be.  A normal civilian crowd will mob around the door with people pushing their way through with no semblance of order.  A military crowd will start to shift around and naturally form a line to go through the door.  No one will say a word, it’ll just happen.  Drive on any post and you’ll see the same effect anywhere traffic merges.

It happens because military folks have been trained to self-organize and consider the efficiency of the group as paramount.  Civilians clearly do not consider the world in the same light, and that drives vets up the wall.  Little differences like that, which can’t be easily explained, often seem insignificant, and create a huge amount of cognitive dissonance for vets are just small examples of the problem vets have even communicating a basic state of existence with civilians.  It results in social discomfort, and veterans will fairly often simply choose to be alone rather than deal with a problem they can’t really fix.

I really like this program because being around people who speak your language and who are having the same problems you are helps overcome that transition challenge.  It’s an issue that’s exacerbated because you’re so used to there being a service or program to help with every problem while you’re in the military and then all that suddenly cuts off when the day you separate.  Suddenly you have no idea where to go or how to get help for anything.  Worse, you have no one to talk to about it and no idea where to go to find anyone who’d even understand how you feel.   Air Assault solves that by pulling vets into a community that’s ready to help them, they just never knew that community was there and ready to help.


The Stack Up Overwatch Program (StOP) may be their most important effort.  It’s a program that offers help to vets dealing with mental health issues.  Veterans that need someone to talk to will find help 24/7 in the Stack Up’s StOP channel on their Discord server.

According to their website, the team is specially trained to help veterans dealing with mental health problems and have a variety of tools at their disposal such as mental health and financial resources, support services, and even therapeutic resources.  Run by Mat Bergendahl, the programs works in partnership with PsychArmor and the American Society of Suicidology to develop tailored curriculum for the specific needs of this unique community.

So many of the problems facing veterans is psychological, and I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault.  At its most basic, kids join at the age of 18 and even if they only serve a single four year tour, they separate at 22, and despite having a great resume and being highly desirable in the marketplace, they’re competing in a system they don’t understand against civilians who’ve grown up in it over the last four years.  It’s a problem that gets even worse if you re-enlist or stay commissioned for even longer.

Source: https://stackup.org/services/the-stacks/

“Stacks” of vets exist all over the world and are ready to support vets with all sorts of programs.

There’s such a huge gap between military and civilian lives that it’s effectively like quitting your job and moving to another country with a completely different culture.  If you’ve ever lived in someplace wildly different like Korea or Japan, you probably have a really good idea of what I’m talking about.

Even if you understand the language, everything else is totally different.  You spend every day just trying to figure out where you go to get new boots or a meal, and trying to determine how you get a job when you don’t know where to even apply for one, much less find out what’s available.  No one engineered to put you there, so no one’s at fault, it’s just the result of jumping from one distinct culture to another.

Societal advancement has sped up even faster over the last few decades as technology pervades every aspect of our lives, and everything increasingly moves online.  It’s easier to do everything, but only if you’re not having to learn how it works from scratch.  There are no Field Manuals for the internet, and no NCOs to approach for help.  None of the standard military sources for support are available, and service members are usually outside the normal flow of information, often not even knowing about the existence of the services that do exist.

Imagine for a moment that you live in that world, and you start to understand why that transition from the military to civilian life can be so hard for vets.  It’s also pretty clear why helping requires slightly different perspective than similar support for the average civilian.  Stack Up has stepped into the gap and taken that challenge head-on.

Source: https://stackup.org/services/the-stacks/

Sometimes all it takes is just a chance to talk with others who have the same experiences to get through the rougher patches of transitioning to civilian life.

Pop Smoke

Along with all the other great things they do to support the military and veterans, I couldn’t help but shine a little light on that great team.  You can learn more about them at their stackup.org website, where you can also offer to volunteer.  I’d encourage you to do so, especially if you’re a fellow veteran.

I’ve found that the best way to help yourself is to help other people.  Maybe it’s the old “Sarge” in me, but I feel like I can turn my own problems off when I have a Soldier in front of me that needs help.  I can focus better on other people’s problems and help them work through them in a way I never really have managed to do with my own issues.  I do find that through helping others I often find answers that I needed as well, though.

Maybe it’s not good advice for everyone, but I think it’s easier to set yourself aside for that short period while another is in need of you, and there’s something healing about being a good servant leader like that.  I tend to feel better and more relaxed, anyway.  It’s also harder to question your self-worth when you’ve just spent a night helping another combat vet feel their way back through that wall of despair.  After all, if you give in and walk away from the world, who’s going to help these folks who needed you?

We’re Soldiers and we sacrifice ourselves for others.  It’s part of the job description, and sometimes that’s just what you need to get you through your own rough patch.  Also remember that asking for help isn’t just for yourself, you might be helping the Joe on the other side at the same time.  Selfless Services doesn’t end at ETS, so don’t let pride and ego stand between you and mental health.  Do what you need to do in order to be an effective civilian, because you can’t begin to imagine how valuable you are to the civilian community around you.  Don’t deprive them of that asset.

In any case, I’ll close this on a more upbeat note with a short packing list of things I always put in my own care packages.  If you’re thinking about sending something down range to a service member, take a look and maybe this list will help you figure out what to send.

Red’s Care Package Packing List

  • Dried Spices – Light and self-stable, sure to help make terrible food at any FOB suddenly more palatable.
  • Ziplock Bags – Dust and water get in everything, but these things are a God-send.  Send all sizes to store everything from cloths to electronics to candy.
  • Zip Ties – Things break and sometimes 100mph tape isn’t the best repair option.
  • Hard Candy – Anything that can get hot and not melt is perfect for long hikes in the heat.
  • Books/Magazines – Combat is mostly boring, so reading material (even trashy romance novels) is good.   There’s a point where you’ll be glad to literally read anything.  Visit your local bookstore.  They’ll probably let you have last-month’s periodicals for free.
  • Dried Soup Packets – These are awesome meal-enhancers that are light and store well.
  • Condoms – The cheap unlubricated adult balloons are perfect for keeping dust and water out of gun barrels.  In an emergency (which is anytime you’re getting shot at) you can fire through them with no trouble, as well.
  • Drink Flavors – Any of those powdered drink flavors are great.  Bottled water is common at FOBs, so there’s no risk of gunking up a canteen.  Transportable, storable, and adds flavor to an otherwise very flavorless world.

Other things would be anything else that might be good on a camping trip.  Batteries, small radios, and anything else you see while walking around the store that might be helpful.  Things to keep in mind is that it needs to be as light as possible, shelf-stable if consumable, be able to get both hot and cold without problem, and things that are reusable are also good.

Stay away from things that need to be cooked, that aren’t shelf-stable, that are heavy or would be awkward to carry, or anything that’ll melt in high heat or might be damaged by cold or by getting wet.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.