SAN ANTONIO – One San Antonio Marine veteran is not letting his disabilities stop him from serving the community of disabled war vets through video gaming. It's an activity he has always been passionate about.
Nathan Gonzalez served in the Marines for several years, but in 2001, his life changed forever.
“Everything was going great here,” Gonzalez said. “I brought my motorcycle back home for leave and then a drunken driver ran a stop sign a couple miles from my mom’s house and put me in a wheelchair here.”
Gonzalez said that drunk driver was pulling a metal trailer which he drove into full speed.
“I just remember laying there and I remember saying ‘My body is on fire. My body is on fire.’ And at that point people in the neighborhood were out because the crash was so loud.”
Gonzalez said the driver, who he later learned was a constant DUI offender, went home to his wife where he told her what happened. He happened to live not far from where the accident happened.
“It was a hit-and-run but he turned himself in the next day,” said Gonzalez. “They didn’t give him that long of a sentence. He only served three months and he was out again. My dad actually ran into his now ex-wife and she told him she was the one that actually ran outside and picked my body up and held me. Then I thought, ‘This entire time I have been blaming that driver but it is a possibility that his wife accidentally caused all of the damage by moving me.”
Gonzalez ended up being paralyzed from the neck down, suffering several injuries such as a punctured lung, broken ribs and more.
“They told me that my shoulder was actually laying under my back and that the nerve in my left arm was completely ripped out of my spinal cord. It took about 11 months before I learned how to feed myself again and the only thing that ever came back was my right arm.”
Gonzalez’s biggest fear was not being able to game again.
“One of my buddies had ordered me a single hand controller from Japan and I loved it because I was no longer depressed. I had fun. You know you sit in a hospital bed bored with nothing to do so this was perfect. PlayStation 2 came out and they started coming out with the dual sticks and I thought, 'That's it that's it! I am never going to game again.'"
However, he didn’t give up on his passion.
“I would just practice hours on end,” Gonzalez said. “In the beginning I would use my mouth and I would hold the controller, and that’s how I would play.”
Though he learned how to play and though he was still learning to adjust as a paraplegic, another blow affected Gonzalez’s life.
“A couple of years ago I went in for a routine checkup and they found a blood clot in my arm,” said Gonzalez. “The next thing I know they had to put in me a medically induced coma for about a month because they kept losing me and didn’t know why. It was like a 1 in 700 chance it would work and what they did they pumped my lungs full of steroid and they said either he is going to breathe or he is not and I bounced back.”
That procedure came with a price.
“The downside is that they found out what the problem was. I had a late stage of pulmonary hypertension so what happens is the vessels in my lungs are really constricted and my heart has to pump extra hard to force that oxygen to the lungs and whatever fluid gets into my body. They have to give me meds to help that blood goes through.”
When he initially woke up out of his coma, doctors gave him a three- to five-year life span but because of his medications, he has now been given seven to 10 years to live.
“I am trying to just make better use of the time I have on this Earth,” said Gonzalez. “Get my bucket list squared away.”
Gonzalez’s best friend, Bennie Sullivan, who is a quadriplegic and gamer as well, triggered an idea.
“He would volunteer at the VA by bringing his consoles there and playing with veterans,” Gonzalez said. ““He is a better gamer than me. It is amazing to watch him play. The things that he does with that controller. It is pretty cool.”
So Sullivan and Gonzalez started a nonprofit, Gamerz 4 Vets, which helps other veterans with disabilities or who are paraplegics and quadriplegics by giving them a chance to play their favorite video games again.
Every Monday afternoon, they set up a gaming room for disabled veterans to play.
“They are like, ‘Oh wow, video games!' They come over and we tell them, 'Do you play video games?' and they will say, ‘Oh no’ and then they will show their hands saying ‘No, I can’t play games anymore,’ and I tell them ‘No man, you can! You can still do that.'”
The organization even uses a 3D printer to customize controllers for veterans.
“We kind of see what their limitations are or their abilities are and we do the best we can to fabricate a control box so they can play PC or console games,” Gonzalez said. “There are social aspects. It keeps you focused. It gives you purpose. Even if you are stuck in bed and can’t get up, now you can put a headset on and you are connected to the whole world.”
The organization also attends different gaming conferences.
“We go out and I tell people, ‘Hey I challenge you, my one hand to your two hands,’ and it is really fun because then I can teach them how I play with one hand and how difficult it can be. It is a way to just raise awareness in the gaming community for disabled veterans.”
Gonzalez said his goal is to form a league of disabled veteran gamers to compete in e-sports. He said they are holding a gaming tournament Jan. 19 to raise money to make more adaptable controllers.
“I just wanted to give back and started thinking about what is my purpose or what do I want to leave behind. Sort of like my legacy,” Gonzalez said. “I just want my military veteran brothers and sisters to know you can still play games. You don’t have to lose this passion that we had before. It is still possible to learn how to game.”
For more information about Gamerz 4 Vets, visit their website.