Stack Up’s Stephen Machuga fights veteran suicide in a time of invisible threats

Twenty-two a day: That’s the rate of veteran suicides that Stephen Machuga, founder of gaming charity Stack Up, is fighting against.

Machuga talked about how he is tackling that problem in a talk at our GamesBeat Summit 2020 event. (This is one of the charities we’re raising money for today).

“There is this invisible threat crushing everybody, and it’s even more important to get folks gaming and interacting with each other through gaming,” Machuga said.

Machuga is a veteran of the U.S. Army. He was a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division and served in military intelligence in the 2nd Infantry Division. His deployments include Kosovo and Iraq. He took a GameBoy Advance with him with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance as he went to Iraq. Upon his return, he became a writer for Sarcastic Gamer and met Jeremy Adams, who went on to found the Extra Life charity for sick children. He looked around to see what also meant more to him in his own life.

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In 2010, he started Operation Supply Drop. His gunner in Iraq redeployed to Afghanistan. He asked if Machuga could send him an Xbox. That was how Operation Supply Drop started. He said he “trusted the wrong people” and lost control of the organization. He went on to found Stack Up to focus on suicide prevention and mental health improvement for veterans in 2015.

Above: Stephen Machuga served in Iraq.

Stack Up creates Supply Crates, or boxes of games and gear sent to soldiers in combat zones, troops recovering in military hospitals, or those struggling at home. He said gaming helps create a good positive mindset. Veteran suicide is often triggered by a “lack of connectedness,” as veterans get out of the service and find the civilian sector doesn’t care about them the way the military did, he said.

The group has an Air Assault program, flying disabled or deserving veterans to gaming events like E3, Comic-Con, or PAX. Those programs are on hold for now. The Stacks will gather volunteer teams to do something positive in the community, like painting a house. The Stack  Up Overwatch Program (StOP), is a 24/7 peer-to-peer online suicide prevention program run through the Discord social network.

A decade of lessons

Above: Stack Up sends game gear to veterans and active soldiers.

Ten years of charity has changed Machuga. He said he isn’t as focused on himself as he was when he was a “hard-charging infantryman.” He is more sympathetic to requests from others, particularly those who really appreciate the help.

He has also found that it’s hard to raise money for adult victims like veterans. The world has a lot of charities for “blameless victims” like sick children or those who have not had a fair shake. He said it’s hard for “mom and pop” charities to take on “Walmart charities” with more resources. He was once jealous of rich charities, but he has also learned how to run a lean operation and that has been useful in the pandemic.

While the lack of money makes you hungry, money is still out there, either through game developers or publishers. They donate gear they’re not using as tax write-offs. Half of the annual revenue for the nonprofit comes from Twitch streamers. About 1,000 Twitch streamers raised money for Stack Up in the past year.

He said America loves talking about helping the troops. But the follow-through has been lacking, Machuga said.

“That’s charity in general, especially in these times now,” he said. Stack Up has a big fundraiser coming up in May. We’ll see if they can succeed amid a sea of voices that need help.

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