Legendary Dad: How Online Gaming Brought One Marine Family Closer Together

Today, troops and families around the world come together with video games – many of them at USO centers. But that wasn’t always the case. USO Staff Writer Joseph Andrew Lee remembers the beginning of online console gaming– and how it brought him closer to his family despite being stationed half a world away:

When I visit my parents’ house, the first thing I hear when I walk through the door is a face-melting guitar solo followed by a string of heavy machine gun fire.

No, I’m not an Osbourne or a Schwarzenegger. My parents are online gamers. My father is well known (and feared) across the spectrum of first-person shooters, while my mother is known to snap-kick like Steven Tyler when she heats up on a Guitar Hero riff.

For years now, the living room gaming console has made my parents’ house a home. It’s not just a toy. For them, it’s a fountain of youth.

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Tommy Lee aka Legendary Dad, can be seen on Skype while playing Battlefield 3 against his son, Joe Lee just last week. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

As a teenager, “Goldeneye 007″ was a mainstay on Nintendo 64. In fact, I believe 007 was the first video game my dad ever attempted to master. He would get so angry whenever my brother and I would ambush him. He would ignore the dinner bell for hours until he was able to kill one of the two of us. Then — and only then — was it was time to eat. (Yes, sometimes I was hungry enough to let him win.)

My dad was already in his 50s when I left for boot camp in 1997, so my brother and I give him a lot of credit: He didn’t just play video games with us, but he actually took the time to learn how to set an effective proximity mine and launch an MGL round at just the right angle so it would land directly in someone’s path. Trust me, this takes skill, and is good reason to be impressed. If technology were alive it would have a restraining order against my dad.

When I left home at 17, I probably missed those gaming days the most. Not so much getting blown up by a random grenade, but the trash-talking and hanging out with my family and friends. Keeping my dad up to date on the latest games and watching him become proficient at them was really fun for us. We felt like it kept him young. When my siblings and I left the house, it was sad to think that without us he might grow old and lose track of how to play the newer, more technical games.

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“Goldeneye 007″: A father’s introduction to gaming.

I spent the first two years as a Marine in Okinawa, Japan, and I missed my dad and brother a lot. I could tell they missed me, too, but phone conversations between the boys always felt forced and awkward. Maybe it was just me, but I just never felt it was a guy thing to jabber on the phone about Grandma’s new hip or to describe what I just ate for dinner (pre-Instagram).

In the year 2000, (queue up Conan O’Brien bit) the world was supposed to change dramatically. In most respects it stayed very much the same. In the world of console gaming, however, there were some significant changes taking place.

Two paradigm-shifting consoles hit the ground running in the first few years of the century, and once they got their respective online networks established in 2002, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network began connecting families like mine.

The PlayStation Network was a free service, so it probably comes as no surprise this was the console of choice for a broke, young, enlisted Marine like me. The first big shooter to come out for the PlayStation Network was a game called SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs.

I was immediately engrossed.

The title was revolutionary in that every copy was packaged with a microphone headset intended to promote in-game communication. But as a perhaps unforeseen byproduct, the headsets created a new communication platform for fathers and sons, brothers and friends. Finally, the men in my family had a way to discuss Grandpa’s colon cancer with dignity — while shooting each other in the face.

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“SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs” became an international family affair for the Lees.

The first of my family to connect online was my brother and me. As an active duty Marine, my skills were valued in this new form of online competition, and as an aspiring Web designer, his skills were also useful. We made friends with other gamers quickly and formed a team (called a “clan” in first-person shooters) named Special Operations Training Group (SOTG). He built out our website and discussion forum while I designed our team’s tactical strategies. At its peak, SOTG had more than 200 adult gamers who played SOCOM daily. Many were active duty military. Some were on my base. Some were veterans assigned to Camp Couch, 1st HOME. Others aspired to be – and eventually became – servicemen and women themselves. All are still my close friends today.

Gaming was a reprieve from military life as well as a direct portal home. Knowing my family and friends were just a power button away lifted my spirits greatly while I was in the service. Before online console gaming, my brother and I spoke once every couple of years. Now we were hanging out daily.

Over the years the games have changed but the bond has stayed the same.

“Goldeneye” turned to “SOCOM” turned to “Battlefield” turned to “Call of Duty,” but I feel comforted knowing that somewhere out there, my dad is virtually mowing down fields of teenage gamers with an arsenal of automatic weapons. Maybe even with a flame-thrower (tear).

My Mom still kicks shoes across the living room, rocking out to Drowning Pool while simultaneously baking a five-layer wedding cake for one of my sister’s friends.

My brother doesn’t play so much these days, but when I have a chance, I still jump online to hang out with (and generally get “pwned” by) my father, whose call sign couldn’t be more accurate.

His name is Legendary Dad. Find him online and he will kill you.

–By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer (aka SOTG Marine)

Daddy Comforts From Afar

As parents, we know that reading to our children is not only an important contribution to their development, but a powerful opportunity for emotional connection.  So when a military parent deploys, the parent is challenged to continue their vital role, despite a long separation. Father’s Day is just one of the many special holidays that a military family may not get to spend together.

United Through Reading’s Military Program is one way a military parent can remain engaged over the course of a deployment.  As this awww-inducing video from a United Through Reading beneficiary family shows, children are never too young to benefit from the soothing sound of their parent’s voice, and a dad is never too far away to comfort his son in this simple way.

Want to help? Simply like OshKosh B’gosh on Facebook and they’ll donate to help fund this great program!

Priceless Gift for a New Father

Army Spc. Corbin Wright watches the birth of his baby girl via Skype from the USO center at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan.

Though he’s only 23 years old, Army Specialist Corbin Wright has always wanted to be a father.

He never imagined he would miss the birth of his first child.

But while his fiancée was in the delivery room at a Texas Hospital this spring, Wright was thousands of miles away serving at Camp Marmal in northern Afghanistan.

It was a bitter disappointment for a new father who had tracked every moment of the pregnancy and talked about nothing else for months.

“I wanted to see everything!” he says.

Wright, a logistics specialist, believed he would make it home before his daughter arrived, but fate seemed to conspire against him.

“I was trying to be financially stable for my child so I [re-enlisted] for another four years,” he says.

That decision pushed back his departure date from Afghanistan. Meantime doctors at home recommended an emergency C-section, moving up the baby’s delivery date by several weeks.

Wright volunteers at the Marmal USO, and when center director Michael Eyassu heard what was happening, he sprang into action, arranging a Skype connection in a private room to allow father, mother and baby to spend their first moments together as a new family.

The whole setup took some planning—Skype is not an everyday convenience in a combat zone.

Most troops cannot access Skype on the secure computers at their work stations. They can purchase internet service from a commercial provider but it’s unreliable and expensive—upwards of $100 per month. Even if you pay for a connection, soldiers at Marmal live in group tents and have nowhere to go for a private conversation.

The USO offers free phone and internet to troops, but Eyassu says “Skype is blocked [at the Marmal center] because we don’t have enough bandwidth to support it. So when we have special events, we have to contact our internet service provider to unblock it.”

That extra effort was a priceless gift for Wright.  Just after his baby arrived by C-section on April 23rd, he watched as the doctor placed little Korlea Santrice in his fiancée’s arms.

“Whew! That’s my baby!” he thought.

“Skyping meant everything to me, because it felt like I was in the room right there with her.”

Korlea weighed just over five pounds and everyone thinks she looks just like her daddy.

Wright is grateful for those precious moments—watching his newborn take her first breaths, hearing her first cries and seeing for himself that she was safe and healthy. But he longs for so much more.

“To give her a big kiss, hold her. I want to feed her,” he says. “She loves when she’s getting fed, and I could talk to her while I’m feeding her. And she could recognize me, hopefully recognize my voice and my touch and my smell.”

One bright spot for Wright is that he’s scheduled to be home in time to celebrate Father’s Day with his baby girl. Many other deployed fathers have to wait months before they can see and hold their babies.

“There’s a lot of people like that in my unit, that weren’t able to get home for the birth of their child,” says Wright, “Because they’re out here serving our country.”  - Malini Wilkes, USO Director of Story Development

The USO arranges Skype connections at bases around the world to bring deployed fathers into the delivery room. This Father’s Day, give the gift of a Skype connection to a military dad, or choose another gift for your own father from the USO Father’s Day Wishbook

Better than Superman

Retired Navy Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Jim Castaneda in the cycling competition at the 2012 Warrior Games. Although his tire blew out, he continued to push to the finish line. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

In Colorado Springs, an 11-year-old boy explains why he attended the 2012 Warrior Games.

“I came here to see my hero,” he said, chest puffed out. “Superman can dodge a bullet, but my dad can actually take one. He is better than Superman. He is a real hero.”

His father, 47-year-old retired Navy Petty Officer Jim Castaneda, may indeed be more powerful than a locomotive. The El Paso, Texas, native inspired everyone, including his son Jef, when he finished a 20 kilometer bicycle race with only one leg and one tire.

Wounded in combat three times, Castaneda survived multiple explosions that caused severe traumatic brain injury. In 2007, he survived a series of strokes that left him with significant paralysis. Today he can’t feel anything on the right side of his body.

Because of his injuries, he was racing a seated, recumbent bicycle, with his right arm and leg taped to the frame to keep them from getting injured. He would operate the cycle with one leg, one arm and one big superhero heart.

His wife and son cheered as he shot from the starting line—faster than a speeding bullet. It was the first time his family had ever seen Jim compete at the Warrior Games.

But it wasn’t long before Jim realized something was very wrong with his bike. After he rounded the first turn, an official approached on a motorcycle and pointed out that his left tire had gone completely flat.

“A lesser guy would have quit,” said his coach, retired Navy Master Chief Will Wilson. “But Jim doesn’t know the meaning of the word.”

Castaneda waived off the official and put his cycle into the lowest gear possible. Each revolution took everything out of his left thigh. Each hill proved more and more difficult to crest. When his leg finally began to tremble, more officials rode up on motorcycles. They asked twice more if he would like to stop, and twice more he waived them off.

“I swear—at times, I wanted to quit,” said Castaneda. “I’ll be honest I wanted to quit. But every time I felt the urge, I thought of my teammates and I thought about my son. I wanted to prove to my son that we always finish what we start. We never quit.”

As he rounded the final turn, Castaneda was nearly unconscious—blacking out from exhaustion. His teammates ran onto the track cheering as they jogged beside him for the final 500 meters of the race. It seemed to take every bit of his superhero strength, but Castaneda felt he couldn’t stop until he made it across the finish line where his loving wife and admiring son were waiting.

“I didn’t have a choice,” said Castaneda. “This was bigger than me. If I was to quit, then it would be OK for anyone—my son, the Navy, America—to quit. But it’s not OK. We do not quit.”

As he crossed the finish line the entire Warrior Games audience erupted in applause. The other competitors made their way to the finish line to shake the hand of this incredibly courageous athlete.

“He may not have feeling in much of his body,” said Wilson, “but I know where he does have feeling—that’s in his heart. He’s got the heart of a hero, and we all felt it beat that day.” – Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

This Father’s Day, salute the superhero dad in your life while supporting the troops with a gift from the USO Father’s Day Wishbook.

The Perfect Gift for the Military Dad

Whether they’re deployed, supporting a child who is serving or holding down the fort while mom’s away- there is one thing our nation’s military dads can count on this Father’s Day- the support of the USO. While people across the country are thinking of ways to make this Father’s Day special, the USO has made it possible for everyone to show we have not forgotten the moms who won’t get to see their children, wives or possibly even hear their voices this June 17th because they are making the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.  Here are three of the many ways you can show a military dad your appreciation from the USO Wishbook:

1. A Phone Call Home – Give a dad the gift of hearing his child’s voice this Father’s Day.

2. Team Up With Troops – Sports are a great way for dad to relax and stay fit. Send all the equipment they need for a game of football, baseball, kickball and more.

3. Tech to Connect Whether it’s emails back home or special Skype sessions to watch their babies being born, today’s latest technology keeps our military dads connected to their loved ones.