Legionnaires, active-duty sailors connect via gaming

Navy veteran Andre Andrews is not just playing around.

“Video games offer a sense of connectivity, a sense of community,” says Andrews, noting his Call of Duty buddies have helped him cope. “If I can garner that connectivity that it brought to me, I feel like it can connect other veterans within The American Legion. Gaming to me is a family.”

Andrews, a member of American Legion Post 283 in Los Angeles, is the architect of the Department of California’s initiative to highlight gaming as a way to connect American Legion members with younger veterans and active-duty servicemembers. During LA Fleet Week in San Pedro leading up to Memorial Day, Legionnaires and servicemembers sat side-by-side gaming and bonding.

American Legion Family members staffed a large tent covering 14 different gaming stations within steps of the USS Iowa.

“It’s a phenomenal opportunity, it’s a large footprint this year,” says Andrews, second vice commander of District 24 and the department’s Video Game Committee chairman. “We’re showing Legionnaires what the future of gaming could look like. By using these tools, we can bring younger members into your post.”

Andrews’ concept can best be described as meeting younger members where they are. He sees post-sponsored gaming as a way to foster camaraderie within the gaming community. Instead of virtual gaming activities, participants can meet at the post and experience in-person connections while still gaming.

“It’s not ‘what can you do for me,’ it’s ‘what can we do together,’” he explains. “What American Legion Gaming is going to do is bring American Legion members and servicemembers together to help The American Legion grow.”

The benefits of gaming also include the potential to save the lives of at-risk veterans. That illustrates the Legion’s primary mission, Be the One, which aims to reduce the number of veterans lost to suicide.

“Right now, a lot of individuals are sitting home by themselves,” Andrews points out. “We want to Be the One, as a unit, to save my brother or my sister who’s having a tough time. For me, Be the One and utilizing video games is getting us together in this space.”

Air Force retiree Douglas Jones says, “Gaming saved my life.”

Jones, who is 100% disabled due to his PTSD, started playing Mario and other video games on an NES system in the late 1980s. He finished his military career as one of the founding members of the Air Force gaming program and now works for Chaos Gaming and Creative Solutions, which helped support the Legion event.

“It (post-traumatic stress disorder) has done a lot of things, it’s affected my motor control, my memory, cognitive abilities,” he says. “When it was at its worst, it affected my ability to function normally in society. Gaming saved me. I’ve lost a lot of friendships. I’ve damaged a lot of relationships. And the ability to reach out and find people with shared backgrounds, it’s absolutely instrumental in helping me heal.”

Now, just as fellow gamers helped Jones, he lends assistance to those who are struggling. “It’s so huge, it’s important,” he explains. “I’m not even stretching the truth at all when I say it is a huge part of why I am alive today.”

It’s that sense of community that fosters friendships. Gaming breaks down walls between those who follow different religions, subscribe to opposing political views or have vastly different backgrounds.

Video games “bring people together, especially like how the military has been embracing it and building communities, and now you’ve got The American Legion doing the same thing,” Jones says.

Among the games being played were Street Fighter 6, Call of Duty Warzone, Rocket League, Mario Kart and Super Smash Brothers.

Navy Chief Douglas Armstrong (gaming tag, “Flux”) is a counselor who is also on the Goats & Glory esports team.

Goats & Glory, established in 2020, plays seven different games and competes around the continental U.S., he explains. During Fleet Week, they worked — and played — alongside Legionnaires.

“We look forward to working with The American Legion,” Armstrong says. “The American Legion and Goats & Glory are collaborating for the first time. This is a good little introductory for us. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do here. The American Legion engaging in esports is phenomenal. Gaming is the future. We are in an era where today’s youth are doing their schooling and then they are going home to play their video games. How do we connect like-minded individuals? With gaming and here we are.”

Post 283 Commander Jim Cragg, finishing up 30 years in the Army, is excited at the potential of the gaming initiative.

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime for a Legion post,” Cragg says. “We have an active aircraft carrier right here with 3,000 sailors. This is an opportunity for us to connect our members, our veterans, with the people who have the potential to become active Legionnaires. And we’re doing that in front of 12 million Los Angelenos who are here.”

And that could just be the start.

“We want them to get in a series of online tournaments, maybe every three months,” he explains. “That way they become connected — and stay connected — with the Legion, while having fun in this high-tech world.”

That gets to the heart of Andrews’ vision.

“The goal is not just recruitment but about community, connection and connectivity,” he says. “And we’re witnessing that today. The Navy esports team is with us, not just to show camaraderie with the other sailors, Marines and civilians, but they want to continue to build a relationship with The American Legion.”

This is not a one-and-done for Andrews.

“We are embarking in new territory,” he says, adding another dozen departments are in various stages of pushing gaming programs. “This is a new day and age for The American Legion, utilizing this technology. Hopefully, we can get into cross-state gaming tournaments.”