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How 'Call of Duty' Changed the Lives of Veterans

The Call of Duty Endowment, a non-profit created by Activision, seeks to place unemployed veterans into meaningful employment.

A militarized exoskeleton allows me to make inhuman, dreamlike leaps into the evening air. Nearing the apex of one of these balletic arcs, I aim a submachine gun, aglow with futuristic readouts, at oncoming hordes of shouting North Koreans, puncturing them into silence with ejaculatory spurts of ammunition.

A motion-captured Kevin Spacey, ​dead-carp eyed, occasionally appears in the corner of my helmet's heads-up display to yell at me with the full force of his theater training.

This is Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, the ​bestselling console game of 2014 and the next installment in a gaming franchise that just so happens to be a point of conception for a real-life charity organization with a stated purpose of helping out American veterans. It's called, appropriately, the ​Call of Duty Endowment, and its mission is to place unemployed veterans, of which there are a huge number in America, into meaningful employment.

Instinctively skeptical of brand-name corporate philanthropy, I wanted to speak firsthand with someone who had actually, verifiably been helped by this organization. This led me to David Roth, a Marine, formerly part of an M1 Abrams tank crew. Roth enlisted in 1990 at age 19 and served his final combat tour in Iraq before retiring from the military in 2010.

Stateside, Roth planned on staying at home with the kids as a "house husband" while his wife furthered her career as a wedding planner.

"Less than a year after retirement," Roth told me, "I found out some unfortunate information which led us to no longer be married. Then I became a single father with three girls. I started looking for a job desperately."

Roth told me he suffered from service-related PTSD, hearing loss, and "it is suspected that I developed testicular cancer from traumatic injury from the time I was in combat."

"Initially," he went on, "I was looking for security jobs because right before I got out I was a security manager dealing with top secret clearances and ensuring that people on the command had the proper documents—something I really enjoyed doing."

But an equivalent job didn't pan out in the civilian world. "Then I just started looking for jobs I could support my family on and most of the places that I found wanted to start you out at a minimum wage of around $12 an hour, which is not going to support my family." 

"Coming out of the military," he added, "and really struggling to find a job that pays you what you're worth, is one of the contributing factors to ​22 veteran suicides a day. Because you go completely unappreciated."

"I became a single father with three girls. I started looking for a job desperately."

The Call of Duty Endowment is funded with heaping millions from Activision at the personal behest of CEO Bobby Kotick, in an effort to address this uniquely American problem. Now that the ​longest era of conflict in American history, manifested by the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has finally, maybe come to ​something like a stopping point, if not a resolution, the US is left with almost a million-man army of jobless vets. About three quarters of a million ex-service members are without work, ​according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and ​the Pentagon pays out almost a billion dollars yearly in unemployment compensation. Post 9/11 vets are hit the hardest, with unemployment rates of Gulf War II era veterans 81 percent more likely to be unemployed than their civilian peers.

CODE functions by scouring through America's thousands of nonprofits that purport to aid veteran unemployment, looking for the ones that are the most efficient dollars spent per veteran placed and guarding against the smiling villains that merely brandish the word veteran in hopes of obtaining sympathy donations. "It's kind of a bewildering landscape," said Dan Goldenberg, CODE's executive director. "There are over 43,000 nonprofits out there claiming to help veterans."

Goldenberg, a Navy commander with over two decades of active and reserve service himself, thinks the actual number of unemployed vets may be even worse than the statistics show. "I don't know if I trust the data," he told me. "What we hear from our non-profits, hear from a ​high-quality study the USC just did, [is] that the picture's actually a lot worse. There is no shortage of people seeking help."

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, who founded CODE, echoed that sentiment. "Veterans bring tremendous value to the workplace. That's indisputable," he told me. "Which is why a 16 percent unemployment rate among veterans ages 20 – 24 in the US is alarming and unacceptable. The Call of Duty Endowment has been very effective in finding jobs for veterans, however there's much more work that needs to be done, particularly in educating direct hiring managers of the many benefits of employing veterans."

In 2013 ​Hire Heroes USA, a non-profit that has received roughly $1.5 million in CODE funding, sent an email to Roth. He was in such a bad situation at the time he's not even sure how they found him. 

"Might have been something I applied to," he said. "At the time I was unemployed and trying to find work. I was not medicated [for PTSD], so things are a bit blurry for me back in that time period." 

Hire Heroes helped transform Roth's resume, interpreting his comprehensive skillset into terminology a civilian could wrap their brain around. Roth wound up with a job within weeks of Hire Heroes helping to rewrite his resume, demonstrating how simple the solution to this national tragedy can sometimes be. 

Roth now works as a recruiter at ​Tradesmen International. He was hired on Monday, November 2013. Veteran's Day. As a recruiter, he puts special emphasis on bringing other vets on board.

Explaining to me the issues job-seeking vets face coming out of the military, Goldenberg told me that employers tend to feel culturally alienated from vets who have spent years within an insular military culture. For their part, he said vets are frequently none too comfortable with the civilian workforce either.

In particular, the failure to understand how vets' military experience can be utilized in the civilian sector is a big barrier, even if it sounds like a relatively small hurdle.

Often the veterans themselves do not know how to articulate their skills in a way civilians will pick up on. Communication breaks down.

Goldenberg illustrated how this breakdown of empathy warped the job interview experience: "I talked to an Air Force guy years ago who said, 'Yeah, they asked me how many people I'd killed in a job interview.' "

The military does have a mandatory ​Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, for all personnel leaving the services, meant to assist vets in their transition back to civilian life. It's a five-day workshop. TAP appears to be an altogether half-assed affair, and seems to be the broken crux, one of the critical leaks that if mended might at least help resolve the nation's hemorrhaging of veterans into economic despair.

"When you're going through the Transition Assistance workshops," Roth said, "they have these resume writing courses. But they're worthless. Because they teach you the format, but then they go on to say, 'don't use military terms because civilians don't really know military terms.' That's all you know is military terms. You know nothing about the civilian workplace and lingo. That would be like me taking a civilian and saying 'Hey, write this resume to get in the military, but don't use civilian terms.' There's no chance of success at that." Goldenberg called TAP a mere start, a primer. "It's sort of death by PowerPoint."

Diette, at right. Photo: Carly Diette

I spoke with Carly Diette about TAP. Diette joined the Navy in 2005 at age 17 with an ROTC scholarship to Vanderbilt University. Upon leaving the Navy in 2014, Diette had also been successfully helped with finding employment at ​Koroberi through CODE's funding of Hire Heroes. Like Roth, Hire Heroes helped her restate and rethink her resume and approach.

"A PowerPoint's not going to do it"

When I suggested to Diette that the military might do more to transition service members into civilian life she said, "I don't want to knock them too much, because they provided me with maybe the best experience of my life. But it was hard when we got out. They could prepare you a little more... A PowerPoint's not going to do it though. During the resume-designated day of my TAP, they just said, 'Okay, just make sure you go home and write it.' And, then, that was it."

Diette says she was one of the lucky ones though, after she was left rudderless and suddenly a civilian after having been totally "taken care of" by the Navy. "I have a support system of a husband, an education and saved money. If I didn't have any saved money or a support system it would have been, maybe, devastating."

When I asked Rob Hard, an external affairs manager at the Department of Veterans Affairs, why it was necessary to rely on nonprofits, taking up the slack on this issue rather than the military itself, he told me that nonprofits were smaller, more local, sometimes with a particular focus better suited to an individual veteran's needs.

"'It takes a village,'" he said. "If we all want to support the troops, we all need to take an active role."

Hard went on to tell me of a veteran of his own family who is blind, and for that family member, engaging with a nonprofit that specializes in blindness is a better way to meet his spiritual, social, and medical needs than dealing with the monolithic VA's office.

What helps that family member the most? "Hanging out with other blind folks," Hard said.

Goldenberg related something similar, alluding to the idea that veteran unemployment wasn't necessarily the military's purview: "The reason we pay for the military is to fight and win our wars, period," he said. "I think the current effort could be improved, but ultimately the private sector and the nonprofits are the best at doing this [helping vets]."

Hence CODE, a nonprofit created by Activision, purveyor of the evergreen Call of Duty series. To receive an initial $30,000 grant, given out under the rubric of the endowment's  ​"Seal of Distinction" award, each non-profit must open its books for a full audit, to verify efficacy. (The audit work is done pro-bono by ​Deloitte.) 

After being awarded the Seal of Distinction, the non-profit can then pitch CODE on ways they hope to expand to help even more vets, thereby enlarging their sphere of positive influence. It's a method CODE calls "chapterization" and many of the nonprofits ultimately receive hundreds of thousands or even over $1 million in funding. These organizations not only help with resumes, of course, but generally offer career coaching, mock interviews, sometimes even provide needed business suits, or whatever else might be needed. Since it began in 2009, CODE has been given $13 million by Activision, with every grant given out to a nonprofit by the Endowment personally approved by Kotick.

Roth told me that Hire Heroes "made offers on anything else I might need. But once I got this job, that solved any problems I had. I didn't really need to take up their time and their resources anymore because I was okay."

Recent findings show that hiring veterans ​makes good business sense. Goldenberg put it this way in ​CODE's annual report: "The message we want employers to internalize is not one of pity or patriotism, but rather the proven, tangible value of veterans in the workforce."

Tradesmen International wound up extremely satisfied in their decision to hire Roth. "Within a year of being hired as the recruiter here," he told me, "I've received two raises, been transferred from hourly to salary and given a promotion to project coordinator which also comes with a monthly bonus." 

As a combat veteran, of course, you start nitpicking on things.But overall it was a pretty fun game."

Roth is cancer free now. His family physician has him on medication for the PTSD "which helps out greatly."

Roth was not aware the organization that had helped him had been largely funded by CODE until I told him. I asked him if he was familiar with the CODE's video game namesake. 

"I played some of it a couple years ago with one of my daughters," Roth told me. "She was obviously pretty good at it. As a combat veteran, of course, you start nitpicking on things. You know, saying, 'well, that's not really realistic.' But overall, as far as playability and ease of learning, it was a pretty fun game." 

I asked executive director Goldenberg if he played the game himself. He said he has a copy of it on his desk at the office, which is the only place he can play. Playing a video game at home wouldn't go over well with his spouse as it might appear that he was neglecting his other obligations, which includes raising four kids. "Are you kidding? There's no way I could play at home," Goldenberg said. "My wife would kill me."