Retired U.S. Army Capt. Stephen Machuga, 36, received some “really, really bad” care packages when he was deployed in Iraq nine years ago, but one stands out in his memory: A box full of Harlequin Romance novels.
“We ended up using them for the confiscated weapons range,” Machuga recalled with a chuckle. “You know, best of intentions, but not thought-out. Most civilians don’t know what actual troops need over there, and they just box up toilet paper and whatever else they can find. Thanks, but if you package foot powder in with cookies, you’re going to have cookies that taste like food powder.”
Since leaving the Army, Machuga has made it his mission to make better care packages, founding Operation Supply Drop, a nonprofit that sends video games to troops deployed to Afghanistan.
“This is kind of a no-brainer,” said Machuga, who now works a government job in Washington, D.C. “Eighty percent of your unit is in the 17- to 25-year-old range. When we were off, all people would do was go back to their rooms and play video games.”
Machuga, an avid gamer and founder of the video game blog Front Towards Gamer, said people don’t usually think of sending video games to soldiers, perhaps because civilians don’t realize many troops live in air-conditioned trailers and share common areas with televisions and Internet access.
“When you’re back in the States, you think it’s like a bad Vietnam War cliche where everyone’s in the jungle,” he said. “When I was deployed for the first time, I thought it was going to be like right out of ‘Platoon’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’ or something like that.”
When he launched Operation Supply Drop 18 months ago, Machuga said he had trouble finding units to accept the care packages.
“They couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They thought I was some sort of counter-intelligence threat, like, ‘Oh yeah, just click on this link, and we’ll send you all kinds of games!'”
But since then, word about Operation Supply Drop has spread, and Machuga has sent 24 care packages — around $54,000 worth of video game gear. The most popular request Machuga receives is for Xbox 360 consoles, “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield.”
“I’ve never gotten a Nintendo Wii request,” he said. “There’s not a lot of ‘Brave: The Video Game’ requests. It’s usually sports games, like ‘EA Madden,’ or one of the big shooter games. Everyone’s like, ‘Wait a minute, the guys over there who are kicking doors and pulling triggers, they want games about kicking doors and pulling triggers?'”
Machuga said he gets a lot of support from third-party game developers — including Rockstar Games, EA Sports, Activision, 2K Games, THQ and more — who donate video games. In his free time, Machuga solicits donations to cover the expense of consoles, controllers, shipping and insurance for each $1,700 package; a unit once lost its care package to an explosive device, he said.
Machuga tries to send a package every three weeks.
“We have more requests than we have time to fill packages, which is good, because we’re not sitting around waiting on anybody,” he said. He gets help from his wife Margo, who is expanding the effort to better target female troops.
“We’ve been getting back pictures of troops standing around the package after it’s opened, and they’re all excited, and there’s usually a girl somewhere in the picture, a female soldier who looks like she could care less,” Machuga said. “It’s become something like, ‘Well honey, I only have 70 pounds to work with, and 90% of the people we’re targeting here are dudes.’ And she’s like, ‘I want to help the other 10%. There’s always one girl in the background.’ So we’re exploring that direction.”
It’s an all-consuming project for Machuga, but one he believes is worthwhile.
“I’m just one guy doing this out of his basement in his spare time, and it’s pretty time-intensive,” he said. “When I started doing the charity, I forgot that you have to ask people for things, and I’m not somebody to ask people for help. I have a military kind of pride. … But it has turned out to be really wonderful, and the letters that we get back from the guys that we send packages — they make my day.”
– Noelene Clark
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