Veteran organizations go virtual in response to pandemic
(Scott Havlick photo)

Veteran organizations go virtual in response to pandemic

Iraq and Afghanistan veteran James Martin logged in last week to what he hopes can grow into a regular meeting space for other veterans adjusting to life under a pandemic: online video game night.

Martin is a volunteer for the Wounded Warrior Project, which like other veteran service organizations is trying to find ways to reach and connect veterans at a time when most can’t meet up in person, due to social distancing guidelines meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Martin, a former Marine injured during combat in Afghanistan in 2013, said he is helping WWP in its effort to build a veteran online gaming community.

“Even though we’re locked in the house, you can still be connected, you can still meet other warriors,” Martin said. “We can play video games together and check on each other.”

Each night, the 39-year-old logs in from his home just outside Pittsburgh, Pa., into a forum recently created by WWP on the site Discord. There, veterans and gamers can chat and find others to play games with. The forum brings together veterans from all over the country, and Martin said the discussion is not just fun and games — it’s also about untangling the stresses of life as they play.

In one gaming session Thursday night, Martin and a few other veterans shared their frustrations with self-quarantining. One had a wife who needed a COVID-19 test. Another was struggling with his college classes after they moved online.

A friend of Martin’s, Gabriel Beltres, also a wounded veteran with WWP, lightened up the mood with a pregame speech:

“Listen up, today hasn’t been a good day, but it’s gonna turn into a good day. We are going to be happy, we are going to be good, because gaming is supposed to be fun,” Beltres said.

The WWP’s virtual gaming nights and fitness lessons began over the last few weeks for veterans, “just to give them a place to hang out during a crazy time,” said Matt Twigg, livestreaming and gaming specialist for the organization.

Other veteran service organizations, known for hosting pancake breakfasts and group workouts, are now organizing conference calls and virtual meetups.

Team Red, White and Blue rolled out an online fitness challenge for its members to do at home, with groups of veterans doing bodyweight exercises in a tournament styled on college basketball’s March Madness.

The American Legion is connecting members through their phones. Using party line conference calls allows the inclusion of older veterans who may not be comfortable with social media, said Jennifer Havlick, member of American Legion Post 109 in northern Minnesota.

“For those who don’t use Facebook, it’s the greatest thing, they all know how to talk on the phone,” said Havlick, an Army veteran and originator of “enhanced buddy checks,” in which veterans call older veterans and ask if they need help buying groceries or doing chores.

Veterans of Foreign Wars, which has been around for more than 100 years, is encouraging its members to reach out to each other via Skype and other video call services.

VFW Post 5066 in Collierville, Tenn., will be using the app Zoom to conduct its elections and broadcast a concert.

Its post commander, Justin Johnson, said he hopes teleconferencing becomes a permanent feature of VFW life. “Long-term, I think this will benefit this post, because now it allows members that couldn’t really make it to meetings to attend,” he said.

It’s important for veterans to stay connected, said Timothy Byrne, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a peer mentor for WWP. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Byrne would always encourage veterans, especially those who have just left the military or are suffering from post-traumatic stress, to leave the house and interact with other people.

“When we self-isolate, we get into our own shells, think about stuff too much,” Byrne said on the phone from his home in Salem., Mass.

Now, self-quarantining has deepened the feeling of isolation some veterans already have, he said. One of the veterans he’s mentoring is suffering through a recent divorce, has lost his routine and shared thoughts of suicide.

“After me talking to him, spending some time, he said, ‘I went and got help,’” Byrne said.

Keeping in touch with fellow veterans, even it’s not in person but over the phone or online, can save lives, he said.

“We do these virtual things, and we still get that social contact with people,” Byrne said. “I don’t know what we’d do without it.”

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