Two Shenandoah University students are using their experiences as veterans of the U.S. armed forces and the expertise they’ve built through SU’s esports program to deliver a weekly livestream that provides support and entertainment to fellow vets and active military members.
Justin DiSantis ’23 and Eric Gyamfi ’23, who each will graduate from Shenandoah with a Bachelor of Science in Esports Management in May, broadcasted their first episode of “Brick By Brick Vets” on Feb. 12, with the support of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Live episodes air every Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Twitch.
Each episode is typically about three hours long. Although DiSantis, 41, and Gyamfi, 33, do some gaming on the stream – the popular Call of Duty franchise is the duo’s go-to – that isn’t what their weekly program is about. Their primary goal is audience engagement and building an online community that promotes mental health, life skills and successful transition from the military to civilian life.
DiSantis and Gyamfi (pictured left) do that with an approach that they say is “very off-the-cuff” and genuine. They point their viewers in the direction of resources available through the VA, hold Q&A sessions while placing no limits on the type of questions they’re willing to answer, and occasionally bring on guests who specialize in everything from veterans-related benefits and resources to esports.
“Inclusivity is huge. Anybody who’s struggling with anything in life, we want to connect them and give them a pattern,” said DiSantis, who served eight years in the U.S. Army Infantry before being honorably discharged due to service-related disabilities. “We want to give you the tools to identify your passion, pursue it and become successful at it.”
“Brick By Brick Vets” quickly saw its audience double from its debut episode, and DeSantis said the positive feedback he and Gyamfi have received about the show has been “through the roof.”
“The responses we’ve received show that we are having an impact on people, and it’s kind of surreal,” said Gyamfi, who served four years in the U.S. Air Force as an Aircrew Flight Equipment specialist. “You can see that it is helping people, so that makes me feel really good that I’m doing something that’s bigger than us and it’s making an impact on people.”
The weekly stream has helped DiSantis and Gyamfi fulfill the sense of purpose that they lost when they left the armed forces. Both know how difficult it is for many veterans to reacclimate to civilian life, a period that Gyamfi said can be “daunting” and “scary” for those who have become so accustomed to the structure of the military.
DiSantis and Gyamfi successfully navigated that portion of their lives, a feat made possible, they said, by the support they received from the VA and the opportunities they’ve been afforded at Shenandoah University. “Brick By Brick Vets” is their way of getting word out to fellow vets that there is hope and there are resources available for those who are struggling. They don’t profit financially from the weekly stream, and don’t wish to.
Our gratitude is knowing that somebody lived that night, knowing there was somebody that connected, that found hope and a ray of light through us. Something that is passionate for both of us is to be a mentor to others and a role model to others, especially within our field as veterans.”
Justin DiSantis, Shenandoah University esports student and co-host of “Brick By Brick Vets”
Though DiSantis and Gyamfi had previously dabbled in content creation prior to coming to SU, neither did anything to the extent of “Brick By Brick Vets.” Their interest in esports led them to discover Shenandoah University, which has been a pioneer of esports academics in higher education since debuting its esports management program in 2019. Using the VA’s Veteran Readiness and Employment program (also known as Chapter 31), they enrolled at Shenandoah for the 2021-22 academic year.
Their venture with “Brick By Brick Vets” embodies the Shenandoah esports program’s mission of going “beyond gaming.”
What Justin and Eric are doing is beyond anything I could have even hoped for. They’re making such an incredible impact in the veterans community and it is truly inspiring to see how far they have come and how they are using their passion, knowledge, and experience to benefit such an important community. They are exactly why we do what we do in esports here at Shenandoah University. Eric and Justin exemplify what we mean when we say that we go ‘beyond gaming.’”
Joey Gawrysiak, Ph.D., Shenandoah University director of esports
The foundation for “Brick By Brick Vets” was laid in November 2022, during a public screening on Shenandoah’s campus of “HERE. IS. BETTER.,” a documentary about veterans battling posttraumatic stress disorder for which former Shenandoah University trustee William F. Brandt Jr. was the executive producer. DiSantis and Gyamfi served on a veterans panel as part of the screening, and in the audience was Ryan Hinely, veteran outreach program specialist at the VA.
Hinely approached DiSantis and Gyamfi about participating in a new VA initiative that would use gaming to assist veterans who are struggling with mental health, an idea that would eventually become “Brick By Brick Vets” (the name derived from a comment DiSantis made to Hinely about how he’s built his life “brick by brick”).
“When I was in the Marines, most of the younger enlisted at my battalion played Call of Duty in their spare time at the barracks. We also brought a Nintendo 64 on our deployment and had Mario Kart tournaments. Gaming is a way for people to connect with each other and manage stress,” Hinely said. “Justin and Eric are great communicators and I appreciate the work they are doing to help veterans.”