After serving in the Army for four years, San Antonio resident Jonathon Frazier wanted to find a way to connect with other young veterans in the area and help his fellow service members. Having heard about the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a 120-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to lobbying for veterans issues, the 26-year-old decided to check out some of the posts in town to see if he clicked with any of the members.
What Frazier said he saw were darkly lit banquet halls where groups of much older veterans were hanging out.
“Not very many young soldiers, like I, decide to go there,” Frazier said. “It’s just unappealing, at least for me.”
This image that VFW posts are only for older veterans “sitting around telling war stories” is something Bill Smith wants to change about the post where he serves as commander, VFW Post 8541.
Located off Austin Highway near Loop 410, the post soon will boast an esports suite, complete with some of the newest high-tech gaming PCs and equipment.
Smith, 54, who completed tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Green Beret in the Army, said he was surprised while serving overseas to see how much gaming meant to a lot of the young soldiers he was stationed with.
The soldiers would set up a group of PCs to play different combat video games, forming their own teams and organizing tournaments, Smith said. Games popular among service members today are Rocket League, which is a vehicular soccer game, NCAA Football, 3D puzzle platform Portal, and more, he said.
More young people are getting into esports, and gaming is a way to get younger veterans interested in coming into the VFW post, Smith said. He hopes the suite will help bridge the gap between older and younger veterans by simply getting the young veterans in the doors at the VFW to meet and bond with older veterans.
He added he hopes by bringing these younger men and women into the post and giving them a space to do what they like to do they will be able to get involved in all the post has to offer for veterans – including mental health services.
As a war veteran, Smith said he understands how important mental health services are to former military members. About 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to have post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Veterans Affairs. An average of 16.8 U.S. veterans die by suicide each day, according to 2017 data from the VA.
Helping connect as many veterans to services and to other veterans as possible is important to lower this number, Smith said.
“The friendships and mentors I met here helped get me through a divorce, helped me when my father died,” Smith said. “We want to make this a safe space for younger veterans to interact with other vets.”
Frazier said he’s not really into gaming, but he agreed that it might be a draw for other young vets.
Smith has called in an expert to help set up the esports suite, partnering with Sam Elizondo, co-owner of gaming hub LFG Cybercafe. Elizondo and LFG Cybercafe will be donating $20,000 worth of hardware, PCs, and more to the post. Smith and the VFW post will provide monitors, keyboards, computer mice and an area to set up, along with other peripherals.
“Our team at LFG Cafe will be able to manage the computers remotely and will be installing them with all the latest favorite PC games,” Elizondo said. “We are really excited to partner with Bill on this project.”
Smith said the post received approval from its board of directors this month to take out a small loan for the renovation, and Elizondo said work to partition off a corner of its banquet hall and add electrical outlets will begin at the end of the month. The total estimated cost of creating the suite is about $35,000 – including the donated gaming equipment, he said.
Currently the VFW post is closed due to COVID-19. Members of the board and VFW post met last week to discuss plans to reopen the post but have not finalized plans yet. Smith said they are hopeful to have the suite ready by the end of June.