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  • Writer's pictureMichael Stern

Stacking Up with Michael Stern

My name is Michael Stern, a 38-year-old disabled Army Veteran. I served from 2006 to 2014 until I was injured and was medically discharged from the military. My MOS was 15T10, UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter mechanic.

After serving, most Veterans are lost and need someone to help them cope with the change from the military to the civilian world, and I was one of them. My injury was to my foot and hindered my mobility for a few years, I gained weight, I ended up with depression and anxiety, and I felt very alone. But I found Stack Up through some internet searches because military friends said that there were plenty of charities out there that help Veterans. And Stack Up came to the rescue.

When I found Stack Up, I was interested mainly because it was a gaming-based group, meaning, they brought Veterans together through gaming. Of course, there was the added benefit of Stack Up bringing awareness about mental health as well as helping Veterans going through any type of crisis. This all rang a certain tone to me. I had to read more, and learn about this group, because if it was truly about gaming and for Veterans, then I had found a perfect charity!

While reading through the site, I found the various programs that Stack Up offered and was blown away by what they said they would do for the Veterans. After browsing some of the pictures and explanations of the programs, I decided to try my luck (with some coaxing from a friend) and apply for the Air Assault program. The Air Assault program is where Stack Up takes Veterans to gaming-related events and places. A few months after my application was sent in, I got the call, and was told that I had the opportunity to go to PAX South in San Antonio, TX, and I couldn’t believe my luck!

During my Air Assault trip, I met a huge group of people who were working and volunteering, for Stack Up. Everyone made me feel like I was the center of attention like I was the star of my own life again, and it brought such joy to me at such a rough time in my life that I hadn’t realized I had drifted into for so long. That trip changed my mental state in such a way that I wanted to make sure I kept in contact with this awesome group of people, and even find more people like them.

This led me to joining the online community for Stack Up. First, I was hesitant, and only joined the Discord server, rarely interacting with people on there, but still reading through the discussions and what people were posting. I finally started to warm up to the people on there and started posting more often, finding a few people who I played games with off and on, but keeping a slight distance, because I felt that there were people that needed the attention more than me. I was also having my own personal health battles, that I did not want to burden others with, and that even included my own family and friends.

Then it hit me: that is what this group is all about.

I remember one night, I was watching a Twitch channel, and it was one of the Stack Up streamers playing some random game, and I just started chatting with him. We chatted for about an hour, and he told me to just join him so we could talk on the Discord server. I joined the channel, and we talked for another hour while he gamed for the stream. We spoke about everything, and he even asked about my Air Assault trip, among everything else. Once I left that chat, I felt like I did when I had been on that Air Assault trip: I was seen, and I was valued.

For the next year, I tried to be a bit more involved in the online community and even began streaming a bit on my own. Covid hit in 2020, which just happened to be the same time when I was told I was diabetic. In April, about two weeks later, I ended up in the hospital. I stayed there for 5 days, alone, since the staff was only coming in to check on me, and I was not allowed family or friends to visit because of the Covid restrictions. But I got out, and went back to working again, then my mother fell sick with cancer. She ended up with brain damage from the chemo, and I quit my job so I could take care of her full-time. This brought me into another dark time of my life, but again, the Stack Up community was there for me. I had friends there that would check in on me, message me, and even play games for me, while I sat by my mother’s bedside.

Michael and his wife visited and stayed at Phalanx House recently with Steve to host.

Fast forward a year or so, and unfortunately, I lost my mother. But while she was gone, I remembered how much love and care she brought to my life. I wanted to do that for others. So, I started back up in the Stack Up Discord, talking to people, checking in on old friends, and just trying to be there for others as much as possible.

I had been hearing about the Stacks program through the Discord chatter, and investigated it, wondering how close the nearest Stack would be to me. I found that, even though Chicago is a large metropolitan area, there was no Stack group! This led me to bring it up to some of the contacts I had made at Stack Up, and they said, “Of course, there should be one there, why don’t you take the lead position, and start one up?” This was how I was given the lead position for the Chicago Stack. The Stacks program is more of a localized group of Veterans and Veteran supporters, who get together to play games, watch movies, and have a local community, in person, not just online.

It is not easy to start for such a niche group. Not only was I looking for Veterans, but I was looking for Veterans who wanted to play games together.

After spinning my wheels a bit, I was at one of my many VA appointments, and I ended up speaking with a friend who worked at the VA as the volunteer coordinator. We started talking about my experiences with Stack Up, and he thought it was a great charity. I told him about my Air Assault trip, how the community was solid and fun to chat with, and how there were other programs, one of which I was now a leader of, that were available too. When I mentioned the Supply Crate program, he asked if I had applied for it because he knew I was tight on money but was an avid gamer myself. The Supply Crate program sends out a big box of gaming and gaming-related items to Veterans, such as a new console with games, a headset, and even a t-shirt, among other things that the Veteran would enjoy that would be game-related. I told him that I had figured it should go to other Veterans since I had already been on an Air Assault trip, and I didn’t want to take it away from another Veteran who could really use it. He pushed me to speak with others within the Stack Up community, and once I did, I finally was convinced that I was deserving enough to apply for one of the Supply Crates.

I applied, figuring that I would probably have to wait a while to get a box if I ever even got one and that I would probably use it both at home and for my Stacks group when I finally get some people to join.

Then a few months later, I got the email. “I’m happy to let you know that we’re planning to get a Supply Crate shipped out to you”, and I was floored. Yet again, Stack Up was coming through for me, during a bit of downtime, and it brought tears to my eyes, thinking that I would have a new game console, and I would yet again be able to start playing games with family and friends again! I would also have a nice console to share with the other local Veterans in the area as I set up events for my Stack too!

I received my Supply Crate, opening it like a child on Christmas morning, tearing at the box, and looking at a brand-new console, headset, a card game, a new Stack Up t-shirt, and a thank you note for the person who raised the money that funded the box. I excitedly took each piece out and then had to calm myself because I knew I needed to take some pictures with the items, but I almost couldn’t stop myself from opening and trying everything out.

I gathered the items, sat down on my couch, took a few pictures, and sent them in for Stack Up to have, and then I ran downstairs and hooked everything up to my TV and was, again, almost in tears with how happy I was to be part of such a great community.

I will forever be grateful for what Stack Up has done for me. They have been there, and I can never thank them enough for what they have done.

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