Care packages that soldiers actually want

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Blurred faces on top of hard bodies wearing Havok brand shirts and holding up video games like EA’s Madden 25 and a box for a Nintendo 3DS, and stacks of software and hardware all around the frame of the photograph. In the background, an assault rifle against the wall.

These are the recipients of the “Kentucky Windage” care package delivered Oct. 12, in Afghanistan, and prepared by Operation Supply Drop, a charity organization dedicated to sending thousands of dollars worth of games and gaming hardware to deployed units overseas and wounded soldiers at military hospitals here in the United States.

“We got the package; it took a while to get out to our site but it made it. … We all thank you greatly and appreciate all the donors and sponsors,” said Special Forces operator “Winston,” the otherwise unnamed leader of the team who received the package, in a letter.

There have been more than 50 other successful deliveries of care packages by Operation Supply Drop, all painstakingly assembled through collecting money and items from major gaming companies that have decided to help the charity accomplish its mission.

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But calling Operation Supply Drop an “organization” is misleading. In truth, its efforts and the packages are largely the work of just one man: Stephen “Shanghai Six” Machuga, a former intelligence officer in the US Army and now the founder and almost the only full-time member of Operation Supply Drop.

Machuga, 37, served in the military for eight years, and spent more than 18 months deployed overseas on active duty, with 13 of them spent in Iraq. He founded Operation Supply Drop in 2010 as part of his goal to create care packages for troops that would have a real impact, versus those that are typically sent now.

“People usually send cookie baskets and baby wipes,” Machuga said. “But I was there, and I know what we really wanted.” Machuga doesn’t mean to disparage people who contribute to those packages of cookies and wipes; he respects that “their hearts are in the right place.”

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But he says that while everyone wants to help the troops out, it’s often just for a sense of self-satisfaction. “Things devolve into a 5th-grade food drive, with kids bringing in 27 cans of canned yams because that’s all their parents would let them take.”

“When I was in Iraq, we got a crate of third-hand Harlequin romance novels from a local library,” Machuga said, pausing to laugh. “It might as well have been kids’ books.” When he continued, the smile on his face was evident even from the tone of his voice. “We decided to turn around and use them for target practice on the confiscated weapons range.” He laughs about the story, but there’s a hard edge of frustration in his telling of it.

The Long Barrel of Indefinite Service

Machuga spent nine more months in Iraq than he initially planned on. When he left the United States, he thought he was leaving to serve the final four months of his active duty requirement. When he arrived, however, his superiors told him, “Oh no, you’re not going anywhere,” Machuga said.

It’s a process known as “stop-lossing,” the ability of the government to extend a soldier’s time on active duty indefinitely if it is deemed necessary and critical for operational success. Essentially, once a soldier is deployed, if the military needs them for longer than it initially thought, it can keep him until it sees fit to release him.

“I was under the impression that I’d be able to get out,” Machuga said. “I thought I’d be gone in like two months, since getting processed out takes so long.” The unfortunate situation is what gave Machuga his nickname: “Shanghai Six.” He was “shanghai’ed” by the military and forced to stay in Iraq, and “six” was how he was referred to by those under his command.

Machuga spent his first five months in active combat zones, working largely in “mobile command centers,” armored vehicles and convoys that can travel to, from and through combat zones to support other forces. After that, he spent the rest of his tour working as a “human intelligence coordinator,” using surveillance data and findings to help search for targets, primarily bomb builders. The work he did gave him the chance to pursue goals he had missed out on during his first deployment as a member of the infantry.

Machuga’s first deployment came just on the heels of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11th, 2001. He was eager to put the Russian he had studied at Purdue University (while simultaneously spending “every second” of his free time in the ROTC program) to use, and joined a detachment that was being sent overseas to Kosovo. But instead of being directed into military intelligence out of college, as he had hoped, he wound up being recommended for the infantry. “My colonel thought that would be just hilarious,” Machuga said, a sour note in his voice.

Despite the twist, Machuga described his deployment as an interesting experience, consisting mostly of “policing drunk Russian soldiers” who “treated the Kosovo posting as a vacation,” since it wasn’t a very active battlefield.

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The 101st Airborne recipients of the "Diamond Tip" supply drop.

When he returned seven months later, he was eager to get to Iraq and do his part during the war on terror. He had no idea, however, that he’d be greeted by a view down “a long barrel of indefinite service.”

Despite getting stop-lossed, Machuga is proud of his time overseas, and happy to have served it. “I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t done my service; it set the stage for where I am today,” he said. The only thing that Machuga is more proud of than his service is his work with Operation Supply Drop.

“Helping the troops, for most people, is a slow, softball pitch. It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “But I want to do more, and to do something really meaningful.” And he knows what his demographic (“troopers between the ages of 18 to 34”) really wants.

“Most of these guys, they grew up with Nintendo,” Machuga said. He’s no exception, saying that he’s been gaming “since I’ve been able to hold a controller.” His troops, Machuga said, love gaming, and it helps them relax and reminds them of home.

Even the name of his organization is derived from a video game reference. In Call of Duty, when a player successfully kills enough enemies, they’re given the chance to call in a “supply drop,” which is usually a weapon or other bonus to help them continue fighting.

Machuga’s first successful supply drop was put together for a friend of his. “It was a buddy of mine, who rode in my truck while I was in Iraq,” he said. This friend re-enlisted upon his release and was immediately turned around to be re-deployed to the middle east, just after coming home. “I wanted to do something for him, a father of five, getting told he’s going right back out,” Machuga said.

Machuga decided to reach out to a contact he had at the gaming company Activision. This contact proceeded to send a surprising number of packages to Machuga, including a huge number of DJ Hero and Guitar Hero kits. Machuga was able to send them overseas to his friend, giving him a nice way to start yet another combat tour.

This success prompted Machuga to found Operation Supply Drop. “I didn’t realize we could rally that kind of support from the industry. I started digging, and realized everyone wanted to get involved,” he said. He’s not overstating the situation; now, he says, he’s “just the middleman between the soldiers and the companies making donations,” and the companies are pouring games into his efforts.

Money, as well, is coming in fast. In the organization’s first year, it raised $20,000 in donations. So far in 2013, it has raised more than $250,000, and the company hasn’t even held its biggest annual fundraiser yet. “We’re breaking some high scores,” Machuga said, excitement and pride oozing from his voice.

The Right-Hand Man

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Machuga’s no. 1 (and only consistent) helper is Glenn Banton, a 32-year-old businessman from Austin, TX, more than 1,500 miles from Machuga’s home in Washington, D.C. That doesn’t stop the duo from working hard, however.

“I met Steve [Machuga] at E3 in June of 2011,” Banton said, “and I really wanted to help him out.” Banton began donating, and he gave enough and so frequently that Machuga actually contacted him to ask how he was managing to gather so much.

“It was all from me and my family,” Banton said. He had reached out to everyone he knew to gather funds to giving to Operation Supply Drop, and Machuga recognized this fundraising ability as a powerful talent to add to his organization.

“In my day job, I’m asking people for huge donations, hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars,” said Banton, who works as a marketer and manager for a custom technology design and production company. He spends hours meeting with and speaking with clients to draw in money for the business.

“I can get down into the weeds” of fundraising, Banton said, leading to his official addition to the Operation Supply Drop board of directors in 2013 as “business developer.”

“I love Steve,” he said, “and he’s been busting his tail for so long. He’s just a great dude.” Banton was eager to start helping grow the organization. Unlike Machuga, he does not come from a military background, but said he was “raised to respect America and where we come from.” “I can’t forget that if I’m not serving [in the military], someone else is in my place,” he said.

Banton describes Machuga as self-reliant and capable of taking on any challenge. “It must be that Ranger mindset,” Banton said, “and he’s been through the trenches of non-profits at this point. If Steve didn’t have the experience that he has, well, you don’t end up with Operation Supply Drop.”

When the pair sat down together to meet in Washington, D.C. several weeks ago, Banton told Machuga that he believes in “force multiplying,” which is military lingo for using more assets and resources to accomplish a goal faster and more efficiently.

“What Steve had before was a one-man show with a giant army of kind-hearted but unpredictable helpers,” Banton said. His addition to the company, he hopes, will add more stability and balance to Machuga’s workload.

Machuga is equally as eager to work with Banton. “If I could have a thousand Glenns, Operation Supply Drop would be the easiest thing in the world,” Machuga said.

Both Banton and Machuga juggle Operation Supply Drop work with their day jobs. Machuga, to “pay the bills,” works as a “private contractor” in Washington, D.C.

“I’m always on the phone and emailing,” he said, adding that he’s lucky his wife “takes care of a lot of the day-to-day nonsense around the house” for him so he can focus on reaching out to donors and volunteers. Even while answering questions, Machuga was busy walking the dog and moving around the house making food and getting ready for an upcoming business call.

His wife, while happy to help, does sometimes become frustrated by how long the hours he has to put in are. “She’s definitely not thrilled about Operation Supply Drop as a second job, but it’s a charity, so she can’t be too mad,” Machuga said. His wife, he added, doesn’t enjoy video games either, which he described as “whole-heartedly unfortunate.”

But the two work well together, and Machuga happily described how he and his wife will hover over a care package crate, balanced on their home postal scale, trying to pack as much gaming gear as possible into the shipment without breaking the 70 pound limit imposed by the military.

What Comes Next?

Moving forward, Machuga stresses that his organization is working hard to keep people interested. He has set a goal of at least two care packages per month for this year, and is hoping to include the Fort Belvoir military hospital and Walter Reed Medical Center in his list of major supply drop recipients soon.

Operation Supply Drop is coming up on its second annual “8-bit Salute to Veterans,” a 24-hour gaming marathon where teams play games live in an attempt to garner donations from sponsoring people and companies (not unlike conventional walks or runs for other charity organizations). Banton describes the efforts put into the event as “ramping up from 0-60,” with a huge push made towards making “lasting relationships,” versus gathering many donations from one-time donors.

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Machuga is excited to see how the company’s future goes. His proudest moment yet was only very recently, as articles about Operation Supply Drop made the front pages of both Kotaku and Forbes at the same time. Yet he is careful to temper his pride and enthusiasm, and is even growing more and more anxious as the major fundraising event draws near.

“It’s scary to put out a ‘goal’ for fundraising, because as the event gets closer, there’s the fear that ‘no one is going to show up and we’re going to look like idiots,’” Machuga said. His fears seem unfounded, however, as last year’s inaugural event raised more than $58,000 in under 24 hours.

Despite his anxieties and worries, Machuga exudes nothing but satisfaction and eager devotion as he discusses his work.

“It’s something truly unique, with a very specific, very niche market,” Machuga said. “There’s really something here that people want to get behind.”