The war in Afghanistan began less than a year after the original Xbox launched in 2001, outlasting both the Xbox and its successor, the Xbox 360. And today gamers play shooters on the Xbox One even while soldiers still fight in the Middle East. Many of the service members fighting today were too young to have played the first Call of Duty when it came out eleven years ago, but they spent their teens with an endless stream of games that offered “realistic” combat through their virtual recreations of the Middle East. No game can prepare a civilian for war, but games do have value for a nation at war. We spoke with Afghanistan veteran Command Sergeant Major Chris Fields about how video games helped bridge the gap between generations of soldiers.
Command Sergeant Major Chris Fields served with the 101st Airborne Division and wasn't much of a gamer until recently. In his own words, “I've always been that outdoor, cut wood, rugby, "man's man" mentality, so in the beginning when the first games came out, I played a little bit of Ghost Recon. But it wasn't something that I spent a lot of time doing.”
We had an issue with suicide in the services, and my unit was no exception. We had four. It tore my heart out.
In later years more and more soldiers who entered the service would turn out to be gamers, coinciding with another pattern that emerged during the Afghan conflict: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. With PTSD came a stigma that caused many soldiers to avoid counseling.
“We were having a lot of problems with PTSD, with adjustment after coming back from combat.” said Fields. "I had a very innovative chaplain who was having problems getting soldiers into—not so much the religious aspect, but making an environment that was easily acceptable and conducive to soldiers seeking his help, his counseling...we had a couple of empty rooms in our barracks and he wanted to turn one of them into a coffee shop-slash-gaming room, and it just so happens that it was adjacent to his office. If a soldier wanted to seek him out, but was embarrassed about the counseling, he could get in, have a cup off coffee and work his way into the office for counseling. This came at the tail end of some dark times. We had an issue with suicide in the services, and my unit was no exception. We had four. It tore my heart out. At this point I was willing to try any approach so that soldiers could feel comfortable about seeking help.”
This also gave Fields the chance to learn more about the new generation of games that civilians were playing back home. “That was the turning point for me in gaming,” he says. “I was having issues with coming home from two really hard deployments. My older son was playing video games, and my mindset was 'Get out and play football, get outside.'”
With the help of a program called Operation Restored Warrior, Fields learned to cope with the effects of PTSD, and realized that playing video games was a path to bonding with his son. “I was just an angry S.O.B., and that's not who young men need to emulate. They need to emulate a loving, caring father who is strong, who brings their hearts to a strong place. Spiritually and emotionally.”
After he deployed back to Afghanistan, Fields met a younger medic named Jameson Lindskog who would unfortunately not survive the war. “He was a great medic. His kind heart made him one of the perfect medics,” said Fields of the fallen soldier. Lindskog was also a gamer, just like Fields' son. “I walked into the aid station because I had spoken to my son on the phone. My son wanted his father's approval. He was making his effort and I had to do something to show him my effort. So I walked into the aid station and I said to Lindskog, 'I am coming to you hat in hand, can you teach me to play this game? I want to reach out to my son.' You could have heard a pin drop. Here comes this 250 pound, scarred up, old, crusty guy sitting down next to this young kid saying, 'Can you teach me something?'”
Of course, modern shooters are brutally competitive and even years of actual combat experience can't prepare a player for quick-scoped sniper attacks and long-range knife perks. “I could walk and talk and shoot, do a couple of things, then he'd come in with the remote controlled car and just blow me up, or come out of the dark and use his knife on me.”
The benefits from gaming were twofold for Fields: he'd learned the skills to bond with his son, while also showing his soldiers that he could learn some new tricks. Unfortunately Fields' unit would soon head into a nine-day battle known as Operation Strong Eagle III, which was chronicled by journalist Mike Boettcher in the upcoming documentary The Hornet's Nest. Among the casualties in the fight would be Specialist Lindskog, who was shot while providing medical assistance to another soldier. According to Fields, "[Lindskog] was a valiant warrior, a great medic. He was awarded the Silver Star and was one of six that we lost that day.”
Plenty of young gamers might think that their skills in games would translate to real-world combat prowess, but that isn't the case. “Everybody has an unrealistic view of the war, or combat, or being in a firefight. It is extremely intense, and if you haven't been in that, it's very difficult to replicate it,” says Fields. “There are video games and there is real life. The end results are different. In one you hit the restart button, the other you go to the aid station if done incorrectly. Video games don't give you a realistic point of combat at all, but they give you a 'thought process'. There are similarities in thought, but not so much in the reality of it.”
Even though those countless hours leveling up in Call of Duty will be of little help in actual war, Fields points out that there is value to gaming. "Video games have a place in our society as a means and a tool to help individuals breach gaps," he said. "The help that the games provide is more than just gratuitous mindplay. It really has a place.”
The events of Operation Strong Eagle III are documented in the film The Hornet's Nest, in theaters now. More on the film can be found at www.thehornetsnestmovie.com. Information about Operation Restored Warrior can be found on www.operationrestoredwarrior.org.