Monday, November 26, 2018

My Red Cross Story: Ken Jones

By Ian Levine, Volunteer

I shouldn’t be telling you this. But in the late 1980s, I lived a life punctuated by the staccato of flying bullets and shrapnel. I used to be Frank Woods, Master Sergeant of the United States Marine Corps. My mission was simple: kill Raul Menendez. Raul was the leader of a terrorist network hell-bent on wiping out 99% of the world's population.

That’s the plot to one of the most popular video games of all time, named Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Retired Army Specialist Tim Senkowski immersed himself in it as a sort of therapy. Tim (and soldiers like him) valued their video games so much that after getting wounded, their first question would be, “Do I still have my hands?” And their second question would be whether their reproductive systems were still intact. So, when Tim gnarled his dominant hand and lost both of his legs, he didn’t know what to do. His mother took him to a Super bowl party, where he met American Red Cross volunteer, Ken Jones.

Ken was an engineer who specialized in adaptive technology for the military. As a teen, he tinkered with radar jammers. But he evolved to customized weaponry for the United States Department of Defense. Although Ken had grown up around the military, he hadn't spoken with a soldier like Tim. Little did Ken know, their talk would alter the status quo for injured soldiers worldwide.

Months earlier, Tim's squadron was dwindling, so it partnered with a special forces group. While the soldiers were advancing, Tim stepped on a landmine. It blew off his legs above the knees, marred his hand, and scarred his back. He returned stateside not being able to do the one thing he needed to do the most. Tim laid in bed, staring at the ceiling. And he would think about his missing limbs instead of capturing Menendez.

It sickened Ken how injured soldiers weren't treated right. He said, "They should be getting $27 million to stay at home with a hangnail like baseball players." He even stopped watching sports because of the disconnect. Ken said, "We need to find a way to keep these war fighters engaged."

After meeting Tim, Ken bought a video game controller and took it apart. He figured out how to customize it for injured soldiers. His mission to help people like Tim led to founding the nonprofit Warfighter Engaged. Warfighter Engaged is a volunteer organization which customizes free devices that improve disabled soldiers' lives.

Devices such as the controller built for John Peck, a disabled Army Marine Sergeant. Sergeant Peck was missing his hands and feet, but he yearned to enjoy his PlayStation 3 again. Ken created a controller for Sergeant Peck, which he used until the day of his limb transplant. Then, Warfighter Engaged took off.

Warfighter Engaged entered a contest run by Microsoft. They called the contest a 'hackathon', a portmanteau of hacking and marathon. Microsoft would offer financial backing as an award for the best idea. Warfighter Engaged won with its universal controller. (Up until that point, there was no such thing as a one-size-fits-all controller because everyone’s injuries were different). The controller offered many ports, each one able to connect to different adaptive technologies.

Ken's involvement with Red Cross changed the way disabled gamers played. Warfighter Engaged and Red Cross are aligned in its missions to help members of the military and their families deal with the challenges of service. Now, because of Red Cross and its volunteers, disabled gamers are leveling up.

There are over one billion disabled people on Earth; or, a little less than the entire population of China. If you'd like to help Warfighter Engaged continue its mission, please click here. The American Red Cross provides global humanitarian efforts, and 90% of it comes from volunteers like Ken... and you. If you'd like to learn more about how you can help, please click here.

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I dedicate this article to my best friend, Army Chaplain Captain Heather Borshof. Captain Borshof has devoted her life to serving soldiers like Tim. Thank you for your service.

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