Rokkr Regiment reconnects veterans, active duty members through video game

Published 5:05 pm Friday, August 11, 2023

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By Hannah Yang

In his Rochester, home, Minnesota National Guard Major Jeff Sabatke readies the family Playstation 5 console. He checks the Wi-Fi and then settles down on the couch to watch his 10-year-old son Jackson play Call of Duty.

Jackson says his favorite part of playing video games with his dad is “teaching him” because his Dad was “bad” when they first played together.

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Then Jackson admits it’s more about the time spent together that he loves most. “Probably playing video games with him.”

Call of Duty titles, many of which are rated M 17+, make up one of the best known video game franchises within military and non-military circles. To Sabatke and his son, it’s a lot more than just a game.

“It’s been a way for us to reconnect,” Sabatke said. “And after being gone for a year, it was hard on him. It was hard on me.”

Sabakte spent 2020 deployed in the Horn of Africa. A longtime gamer himself he was delighted, on his return from his tour, to find Jackson’s deepening interest in gaming, and the gaming community.

Encouraged by Jackson, Sabakte joined the Minnesota Rokkr Regiment. For almost a year, he’s been competing in its Call of Duty tournaments.

The Minnesota Rokkr is a professional e-sports organization, and Rokkr Regiment is its program for active servicemembers and veterans.

“It provides something that we were all kind of long [for] in the sense of that teamwork, competitive nature,” Sabakte said. “You know, that just makes us who we are in the military.”

Launched in 2021 the Rokkr Regiment has more than 900 members all over the country. Anyone enlisted or a veteran can join for free and get access to online tournaments and community events. The program is based on a shared love for video games, specifically around “Call of Duty.”

Ang Lee was until recently Minnesota Rokkr’s marketing director. She says the program builds connection between members whether they’re veterans or active duty.

“There is, I think, with the military such an incredible amount of camaraderie, and grit, and love of competition and also gaming,” Lee said. “With those who are into gaming and play Call of Duty, there really is this natural tie of those characteristics. So, it’s been wonderful to see how that comes to life.”

The Rokkr Regiment also provides a Discord server, an instant messaging platform where users can communicate directly via text or in-voice calls. Rokkr Regiment members can hop on and talk, organize and play games.

A similar, albeit private, Discord channel became big news back in April, after a Massachusetts National Guard service member was arrested for leaking classified Pentagon documents that were shared inside of a private Discord server. The leaks became public after one of the members started reposting them on another, larger, Discord server.

Lee said the Rokkr Regiment expressed there were no concerns about sensitive information possibly being leaked or shared on their Discord server.

“We have codes of conduct that people agree to when they enter into our Discord space,” she said. “Aspects of that are respect and how you treat one another … The members when they’re in the Discord space, it’s very, very social and they’re not bringing their work into the space.”

The Rokkr Regiment program, for some, is about reconnecting with loved ones after deployment. For others, it’s about their mental health and finding a community after ending their service.

Retired Marine Corporal Briana Dowling now lives in Buffalo, N.Y. She streams her Call of Duty gameplay with other Rokkr Regiment members.

When she deployed to Afghanistan as a mechanic, she remembers friends who went out on patrol and didn’t return. She says she now suffers from post-traumatic stress. She’s struggled with the transition to civilian life.

Finding others to connect with through the Rokkr Regiment has been important to Dowling.

“It’s been an escape, and going into the military, you kind of don’t know who you’re going to be coming out,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going to change. You don’t know what’s gonna stay the same. And gaming stayed kind of the same for me.”

In fact, Dowling says, it saved her life. The Rokkr Regiment reminds Dowling she’s never alone.

“When I was at my darkest, I would call out to them and be like, ‘Hey guys. Can we play something?’” she said. “‘I don’t want to talk about what’s really going on. Can we just do something?’ And we’d game, and it would be just the time to just not think about anything.”

Back in Rochester, Jeff Sabatke says as an active military officer, he often sees how returning home after deployment can be hard for some.

That’s why he says having a support system or a community for military service members, their families and veterans is vital.

“You’re really excited to get back to what regular life is, but in the same breath, you lose something too,” Sabatke said. “Because, a lot of those people you are with day to day are no longer quite there.”

He’s making up for the lost time with his son, whether it’s through Call of Duty or Minnesota Rokkr events.

“It was rebuilding that relationship through something [Jackson] was very passionate about,” Sabatke said. “And so, I for one, just am forever grateful, because I feel like everything the Minnesota Rokkr [has] done for me and my son has really helped us grow our relationship since I’ve come home.”