When Erik Johnson of Warfighter Engaged used to serve as an occupational therapist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he saw men and women with severe injuries – including SSG Travis Mills, who established the Travis Mills Foundation in 2014.
A question he posed to all of his patients was this: What do you want to be able to work on while you’re here?
One soldier’s answer?
“I really want to be able to play video games again.”
Erik began looking at ways to adapt game play so his patients could re-engage with one of the things they previously loved to do despite having physical limitations from their injuries. From there, Erik had a chance meeting with an engineer named Ken Jones who offered to re-wire and remap buttons on controllers to make it easier for injured gamers to play. “Ken took what I was doing to a whole new level,” Erik says. “We began working together and scheduling occupational therapy treatment sessions for adaptive gaming. From that an idea was born: a nonprofit organization that provides free, adaptive gaming equipment to injured servicemembers, or warfighters.”
Warfighter Engaged was established in 2012 and is 100 percent volunteer-run. It provides enabling solutions and independence to our nation’s warfighters and is funded by the generosity of our donors as well as service provided to non-military gamers.
“Though Warfighter Engaged primarily focuses on service members, free consultations are provided for anyone who needs help,” Erik said, adding “There’s nothing more meaningful than being able to help people who have sacrificed a lot.”
Their adaptive gaming service is performed for wounded and disabled veterans all over the country. They have held on-site gaming workshops at places such as Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical Center, and other medical facilities. They have also provided hands-on adaptive gaming sessions at amputee conferences and events such as the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat. All adapted items are provided at no cost to the warfighter.
Erik, Chief Medical Officer at Warfighters Engaged, was on site at the Retreat last weekend, even reuniting with some former patients he treated after their injuries they experienced nearly 10 years ago.
“I haven’t seen these guys in a long time,” Erik said, tears in his eyes.
He also worked with the Foundation’s VP of Programming, Kelly Roseberry, when she served at Walter Reed as a physical therapist. He currently teaches occupational therapy at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor. Additionally, Erik served our country in the Army for 20 years from 1996 to 2016, becoming injured himself when he sustained burns while stationed overseas.
“It was a freak vehicle roll over, it wasn’t combat related” Erik said. “It was just me and my first sergeant in there and he died. It was very tough.”
Out of Erik’s experiences, however, has come something life changing.
“Having an opportunity to use these injuries to do something positive really is a gift.”
Warfighter Engaged at the Travis Mills Foundation
On Saturday, Jan. 15, during a wintry weekend at the Retreat, nestled in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine, five recalibrated veterans and their families came together to learn new techniques to play video games, also including their families and even SSG Travis Mills, who is having a piece of equipment modified so he can play Nintendo Switch with his 5-year-old son, Dax.
“Travis called me about a month ago because Dax wanted him to be able to play,” Erik said. “When you’re injured, a piece of your independence is taken away from you. Me being here this weekend gives me the opportunity to re-introduced independence they thought they had lost.”
When Erik travels for Warfighter Engaged, he brings several hundred adaptive gaming tools with him.
“There are tons of different ways you can play a game depending on what your injury is,” he said. “And nothing fits the same person the same way.”
After Erik consults with a person who needs an adaptive setup, he develops what he calls a “Game RX.” He then turns the project over to Ken Jones, Warfighter Engaged founder and its engineer, to build a piece or pieces to help the warfighter be able to play video games with friends and family.
Sometimes Erik and the small team of volunteers with Warfighter Engaged can’t perform an in-person consultation, so they’ll chat with the veteran or their caregiver to figure out what they’ll need to be able to play video games. Other times, he calls on his network of therapy professionals and/or gamers throughout the country to do visits and consultations.
Gaming as a Tool
Erik says video gaming has powerful psychological and social implications that can bring people together.
“I can be right here,” he said, motioning to the living room of the Retreat, “and have five or six service members who play from different corners of the world.”
“It’s building a community,” Erik said, adding that there are a number of games that can be played together. Over the weekend, they played Overcooked, a chaotic cooking game where all players must work together to chop, cook and serve food.
“We laugh together, we get frustrated together and we find camaraderie,” he said.
For Erik’s 46th birthday, he played 46 games in one day to show video gaming’s far-reaching influence.
“I played chess with my dad, ping pong with my best friend, Super Smash Brothers with my boys, went to the arcade with my wife and ended the day playing Halo with a friend,” Erik said. “Gaming has always been about who I’m playing with. I can share moments and memories with them, along with accomplishments and achievements.”
Video gaming even proved to be a successful recovery method when Erik works with his patients.
“One patient had a hard time with mobility and standing,” he said, adding that during one session, the patient stood for about 2 minutes before needing to rest.
The next day, Erik put video game controllers on each side of his patient and he stood for 17 minutes.
“We found something that worked for him,” he said, adding that he and Kelly often complimented one another’s efforts with patients when they worked together for two years.
“The value of a multidisciplinary team is incredible,” she said.
Video Gaming, Personalized
Alabama resident Corey Garmon is a recalibrated veteran who was injured by an IED while serving with our country with the Army. He recovered at Walter Reed at the same time Travis was recovering.
A double below-the-knee amputee with hand injuries as well, Corey said there were days he felt sorry for himself, but he had a great support system.
“Travis won’t say this, but he had it a lot worse than 98 percent of us there. He was kicking ass with a smile on his face,” Corey said. “It made it hard to feel sorry for yourself.”
Erik was Corey’s occupational therapist in 2012; Corey also worked a bit with Kelly on physical therapy.
Both played crucial parts in Corey’s recovery: “You see them a lot more than you see your doctor.”
“I love playing games,” he added. “While I wouldn’t say I’m a gamer, I love playing Xbox and the social aspect of playing video games.”
After he was injured, he had an Xbox controller adapted so he could play. Throughout his recovery, each controller more closely resembled a universal controller. Now, he uses both adapted and non-adapted controllers.
Omar Milan of Texas has long been interested in video gaming. In the Marine Corps for 14 years, Omar was injured in 2012 by an IED. He’s partially paralyzed, is a below-the-knee amputee and experienced both tissue and nerve damage. He also has injuries to his hands, limiting his motor function. For about a year, he couldn’t move his right arm and one of his hands was stuck in a fist for an extended period.
Omar has loved video games as far back as third grade and his favorite pastime as a kid was visiting friend’s houses to play Nintendo.
In fact, it was Omar who Erik enticed recovery with 10 years ago through video gaming.
“Erik built splints and strapped controllers in my hands so I could play with a Nintendo Wii in recovery,” Omar said. “It was fun, we did a lot of that.”
Texas resident Monte Bernardo doesn’t have a left hand but loves to play video games, so he stuffs a pillow instead of a small backpack to rest the controller on while he plays. Erik said he tried a similar strategy with some of the others at the Retreat for the weekend.
“I learn something with every warfighter I consult with,” Erik added.
DeVaughn Ollison, also a Texas resident, sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2018 after a vehicle accident while serving in the Army. He and his family, especially his 22-year-old son, enjoyed playing games together at the Retreat, their first experience with the Travis Mills Foundation. The only non-amputee participant, he played games over the weekend with a toggle piece at his feet at times.
Erik appreciated seeing DeVaughn’s entire family join in playing video games. In fact, it brought tears to his eyes.
“All of a sudden he’s playing this complex game,” Erik said, adding that he loved seeing not only children, but also spouses playing games with their families.
DeVaughn’s wife is especially excited for DeVaughn to continue to play because it will help him develop certain skills he needs to work on because of his brain injury.
Erik said he’ll be back to Maine to fit Travis with a device to allow him to play Nintendo Switch with Dax.
“He cares about being a dad,” Erik said. “That’s what this is about for him. Video games bring people together in all situations for all kinds of different reasons.”
Warfighter Engaged provides other programs in addition to veteran accessible technology, including gaming clinics and workshops, accessibility courses and lectures and non-veteran gaming support. All donations to the organization go to support adaptive veteran gaming.
To learn more about Warfighter Engaged, visit warfighterengaged.org.
About the Travis Mills Foundation
The Travis Mills Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports post-911 veterans who experienced life changing injuries while in service to our country. The Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat offers our nation’s recalibrated veterans and their families a week-long, barrier free, all-expenses-paid experience at its world-class retreat in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine. It offers various programs that help these brave men and women overcome physical and emotional obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. The Foundation also offers the Warrior PATHH Program (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) for combat veterans and first responders, the nation’s first of its kind program designed to cultivate and facilitate post-traumatic growth. Learn more >>> www.travismillsofundation.org.