When you think of the VFW, what comes to mind? For many of us younger veterans the stigma is that your local VFW post is a dark, dusty bar with a bunch of older vets telling war stories. Whether that is fair or not, the VFW has had an issue attracting younger veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to its ranks, despite the obvious benefit that the VFW provides to those vets.
One post in San Antonio is moving to change all that.
VFW Post 8541 has created a cyber café in its facility with the intent that younger veterans will have a place to hang out, build fellowship, have an escape and be part of the local veteran community. And no, this isn't a couch with an Xbox and two controllers.
Take a look at this:
Video games have come a long way since Space Invaders and Pong. Nowadays, it's a billion-dollar industry that continues to grow every year. Consoles continue to war with each other, video game franchises compete to have the best upgrades in graphics and gameplay, and players now compete in more organized tournaments. Esports has blown up quite a bit with professional leagues forming with players making six figures a year! (Tell that to your girl the next time she gets mad when you have a COD marathon!)
Even pro sports leagues are getting in on esports. The NBA, NASCAR and Formula 1 have all had their best stars compete when everything was shut down during Covid.
While some people scoff at the amount of time and energy people put into gaming, there have been proven benefits to veterans.
Video games have been increasingly recommended to veterans as a way to cope with the effects of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. How so? Mental health experts will tell you that a great way to deal with mental health issues is to find an activity that puts you into a flow or zone. Whether it's running, shooting drills, surfing, reading a book, or playing a game, an activity that takes up your concentration and allows you to escape and give your attention completely to that task has proven to be beneficial.
Video games provide just that. Even the Department of Veteran Affairs now says that "Video games can help in overcoming such problems as PTSD and substance abuse disorders."
This is something Bill Smith saw during his deployments and is now bringing to his VFW post.
Bill Smith is VFW post commander who served 32 years in the Army, most of it in the Special Forces.
He did two deployments to Afghanistan and one to Iraq. After getting out in 2015, he was involved with the VFW and was rapidly put in charge of Post 8541 when the post came under suspension 3.5 years ago. He went to a meeting to talk about the suspension and found himself nominated to take over. Immediately, he looked for ways to get things back on track. And boy, has he. Post 8541 has been the #1 post in Texas the last 2 years out of 298 in the state. That is based on membership, community services, legacy programs signups. For each new life member, you get points for that.
Right now, Bill's priority is getting lots of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to sign up. It has been an issue that many posts struggle with or don't even try to attempt.
Not only has Bill's post been starting to get a younger crowd, but it has been a good smooth transition.
As Bill says, "The only way to change it is to get in there and change it." So, he went and found ways to attract younger vets.
"I was connected with the Texas Guard… just selling. I would get out and tell them this is what we have going on, come out and try it out. "Bill continues, "We had a banquet hall and one of the first things we did, was open up the hall for military functions." A great example was a Special Forces Party that was held at the hall. The VFW picked up a $1,000 bar tab for the party to help with the costs. The next day the post had 40 new signups. Bill also created a family room at the post. Now if you want to get to the VFW, but have the kids, you can still go. While these were great steps, Bill was still thinking ahead of the curve. Which brings us to the cybercafé and video games.
Where did Bill get the idea?
"When I was in Afghanistan, I was embedded with French Special Forces. When I went to Bagram, I went to JOC and was berthing with some guys in 7th Group. As I was sitting there, I kept hearing. 'Who shot me? Who did this?'
Bill saw in their down time they were gaming a lot. It was their escape and they spent a lot of time decompressing through video games. He also saw ODA guys playing in their down time.
"My sons are 26 and 23 and they game a lot, so I saw gaming was big. My oldest son's friend, Sam Elizondo owns LFG Cybercafe and they sponsored a team for a tournament. Bill decided to talk
And talking to Sam, they came up with the cybercafé idea.
Sam Elizondo, after talking to Bill, decided to help make this idea into a reality. Sam said, "I think what I love most is that we arrived at this leg of the journey out of Bill Smith's relentless drive to help people. He wants to give these younger combat veterans a place to heal and a place to be. It's been a privilege to use my skill set for that mission."
Sam's background and livelihood are in gaming. He also comes from a military family. As Bill and Sam started planning, they knew they had to get the support of the current VFW Post members on board. After all, it's their club and building a video game center in their post was something that might not sit well with Vietnam veterans. But to Sam's surprise, the older vets were really receptive to the plan. Once they started seeing the plan turn into a reality, they became even more excited.
The buildout of the café started in January and is almost done. However, there was one big obstacle that Bill, Sam, and workers had to deal with. Covid -19 shut down the post for a while but they pushed through on building it out. Unfortunately, with the current rules, Texas has their post shut down just when they were about to open the café. While veterans will have to wait just a big longer before they can take advantage, the work that Sam did is utterly amazing.
This is just the first step. Most games will be provided via Sam's company. There will be about 70 games for the PC consoles which he will manage the system remotely Right now the plan is to have 12 PCs and 6 Xboxes. Also, Grande Communications is installing fiber optic cable so that the Post will have the best download speed.
Microsoft also made a generous contribution. They shut down their brick and mortar store and decided to donate $25 thousand in hardware. The post has had admittedly older computers (some running on Windows XP) so now they will have fast computers and fast internet connection. Sam is also helping build out a new business center with these resources so vets young and old can have access to computers.
So, what next?
Sam hopes, "Veteran Esports Competitions and just a better connected family of VFW's. There is so much value in building out infrastructure like what POST 8541 is doing that the sky truly is the limit. They have the ability and the network to do some incredible things. It just needs to be embraced."
Once COVID is over, the café will be open for vets to come game. The hope is it will be a place for them to escape the world and find comfort in fellowship. Bill and Sam are hoping other VFWs will take notice and build their own centers. This will hopefully lead to gaming competitions between local and long-distance posts.
The VFW has been a backbone of veteran activity for decades. Thanks for forward thinkers like Sam and Bill, it is shaping up to continue to be that backbone.
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