This truly is a man living his dream. That’s all I can think as Bruce Bjorklund explains to me that he plays video games for research, and that any game he buys is a work expense. He does this in his role as a game designer at Gas Powered Games. I think to myself about all the hours he spent playing Star Craft II when we were roommates at Pacific Lutheran University, and about how he’s now paid to do that. Bruce was not always living the dream, though. In fact, less than a year ago he was a college dropout in debt, struggling with PTSD and in danger of being on the street.
Bruce’s story begins in 2006. After his first semester in college, he felt like he lacked direction. As a result, he decided to enlist in the Army, despite the objections of his parents. He became a medic and eventually deployed to Samarra, Iraq, with the 2-505 PIR, 82nd Airborne during Gen. David Petraeus’s “surge.”
Bruce spent an intense deployment tending to injuries, participating in combat patrols and raids and working with fellow soldiers to train Iraqi troops and police. He sums up his experience in Iraq, saying, “It’s one percent crazy and 99 percent boring,” but adds that “that one percent is really crazy.”
Less than a year after returning from Iraq, Bruce began school at Westminster College in Utah as a cadet in the ROTC program. For Bruce, the rapid transition from combat medic to college student was a rough one. “You have no guidance, you lose a lot of that comradery you have as a junior enlisted man.” He says that going from the regimented life of soldier to the free life of a college student led to him engaging in bad behavior, notably drinking heavily. Despite often struggling to balance these demands, he was able to maintain a 3.6 GPA, while excelling as a cadet.
It was around this time that Bruce began to suffer from PTSD. He began to have nightmares and suffer from flashbacks. He began to lose patience with civilian classmates. “I couldn’t handle crowds,” he says “so there went my partying, which was probably a good thing.” It was around this time he was officially diagnosed with PTSD and put on medication. To make matters worse, he was suffering from an infection, a leg abscess he’d apparently developed in Samarra, and put on antibiotics.
As a result of the medications, he was medically dis-enrolled from ROTC. He began to suffer side-affects from the mixture of medications he was taking. The stress continued to take a toll on him. Bruce explains that he recognized suicidal ideations. “I couldn’t handle it anymore. I didn’t feel safe.” He checked himself into the VA hospital in Salt Lake City.
Bruce says that it was around this time he reconnected with his father. “My father was like, ‘Hey, let’s start over here in Washington.’” He then made the move to Bremerton to join his father. He found Pacific Lutheran University, which proudly proclaimed itself to be a veteran-friendly university.
Bruce was disappointed with what he found at PLU, calling it “the hardest part” of his transition out of the military. He said many professors were indifferent to his situation. Particularly, many professors would not accommodate VA appointments, which are fixed well in advance and cannot be rescheduled. They docked him for attendance. Even sympathetic faculty members ran into difficulty and indifference from staff when they tried to make accommodations for Bruce.
He continued to struggle, doing very poorly in his first semester, in part because of time missed while in a VA hospital in Seattle. He moved out of his father’s house to cut down on commute time and moved into campus housing. It was around this time that I offered to let him move in with me in my on-campus apartment.
He came into contact with other veterans and saw his grades improve in his second semester. The boost wasn’t enough, though. That summer, due to what the university deemed low overall academic performance, he was stripped of his financial aid.
Now, no longer able to afford school even with his GI Bill benefits, he found himself lost once again. At my urging, he turned to Mike Farnum, PLU’s Student Veteran’s Association president and VetCorps representative, for help. Mike helped him organize his resume, and help him find resources he could use to get by in the interim.
While Bruce tried to put his life back in order, he looked for work. “I applied for every position I could, whether I was qualified or not.” He tried to play up his experience with computers. On a whim, he applied to an open position at Gas Powered Games in Redmond, Wash. To his surprise, he quickly got a call back.
Chris Taylor, founder and CEO of Gas Powered Games, known for his involvement in the titles Total Annihilation and Dungeon Siege, says that Bruce’s resume stood out because of his evident passion for gaming and his involvement in modding projects. “You have to be passionate about the art,” Taylor says, and Bruce clearly was.
Bruce quickly found himself at home at Gas Powered. He adapted to the new work environment and excelled. Taylor says that Bruce’s ability to find “creative and inventive ways to solve problems,” and take the initiative, stood out.
When asked what Bruce brings to the company, Taylor responds that “Bruce brings a real urgency” and a dedication to getting things done quickly, which Taylor adds is a major asset in the fast-paced and rapidly changing gaming industry.
Bruce in part credits his training for helping him be successful. Bruce says that once he got his PTSD under control, he was able to use his military experience to his advantage. “Writing some code is nothing compared to saving a life or working on someone that’s blown up.” He credits his training with instilling discipline and a goal-focused mindset.
Taylor agrees with that assessment. “I think that’s part of his traditional training. When you’re in the military, you don’t want to dilly dally around. When you’re given an order to do something, I’m pretty sure they mean ‘now’ and not ‘this week.’”
Bruce hopes that other veterans can learn from his experience. He urges veterans to seek out help when they need it and use the resources available to them. “They make a difference. It took me a couple years to realize that,” he says. He credits Mike Farnum and VetCorps for helping him out, and urges others to use those resources.
At the same time, he cautions veterans about being dependent on the VA and other programs. “Use every resource that’s available to you, but don’t trust that they’ll do everything for you,” he says, adding that veterans need to continue using the discipline that they were taught in the military, and learn to self-motivate.
Bruce has rapidly risen up the ladder at Gas Powered as both a capable programmer and leader. “We’ve been giving him more and more responsibilities,” Taylor explains. “We want to get his brain fully loaded and fully challenged.”
Bruce loves the challenge, and loves his job. “I like that I’m creating something.” Being in the gaming industry is a dream come true for Bruce. Even while writing this, I receive a text from Bruce informing me that he’s been promoted yet again. He doesn’t have much time for recreational gaming, with most of his time now dominated by coding and concept work and most of his gaming being strictly for research purposes.
I’m incredibly happy for my friend, watching him live his dream. His is a story of war, struggle and ultimately of redemption and triumph. This is not the story of every veteran. Many still struggle. As the military braces for personnel cuts, many more will find themselves as civilians in classrooms and interviewing for jobs. Bruce’s message to all of them is “trust yourself, don’t give up.”