HEIDELBERG, Germany - Normally the staff at the Heidelberg sports and fitness office spend their days assisting customers, stocking equipment, handling administrative duties and basically making sure that Heidelberg fitness center patrons have everything they need.

Recently the group got together for a special mission that required each of them to huddle up and craft a game plan that would incorporate of all their resources and talents to reach out to injured troops.

"Usually we see people helping, but being the sports and fitness department, we weren't sure what we could do," said Michael Criswell, chief of the Heidelberg sports and fitness office. "We all love to cook and we all love to help Soldiers. That's what we do for a living."

The group loaded up their vehicles with food and gifts, and drove to Landstuhl's United Service Organization's Warrior Center to spend time with wounded service members there.

The center is one of two USOs located at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

The USO Warrior Center specifically caters to the needs of service members recovering from injuries and it's in walking distance from their barracks.

"For me, it goes back to around 9/11 when we were over here in Germany, and we couldn't help over there (in the United States), so now when Soldiers need help we want to do our part," Criswell said.

Once they hit the ground, the Heidelberg crew spent time talking with wounded service members before they rolled up their sleeves, tied on their aprons and got busy.

The end result - a decadent spread of barbecue ribs, corn, spaghetti, steaming jambalaya, vegetarian chili, German noodle salad, cake and a colorful array of fruit and vegetable platters.

"It's been fun," said Steven Sanders, assistant facility manager at Patton Barracks fitness center. "We all sat down, and brainstormed about what we were gonna bring. It's a little bit of everything. We have people from Texas, I'm from Illinois, my wife is from Germany so we made German noodle salad. Our sport's director is from Louisiana so he made jambalaya and we just came up with different things that people would like and it was a huge success."

The group fed close to 80 people during their visit, one of whom was Staff Sgt. Aarion Lewis.

"It's been good, because usually I don't like to get out. With my PTSD, it can be a problem with me being around crowds, so when I heard about this, I just felt I needed to come out and help myself get back into being around people," Lewis said.

"You've got food here, you've got a lot of different people here and you've got entertainment going on. For people coming from downrange, this kind of helps to boost them up and helps them to know that somebody cares."

Another attendee was 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Ruben Wright who is currently deployed to Afghanistan.

"This whole thing was lovely, the food was great. Where I was at, there was nothing but MRE's and sometimes you didn't get to eat," he said.

"After being downrange for so long. Being in an environment like that, getting shot at everyday getting blown up...to come here and just relax is good."

Wright also credits the USO Warrior center and its staff with helping to speed up his recovery after he was involved in an improvised explosive device attack.

That's what it's all about for Melissa Parkins, manager for the USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl. She and her employees are responsible for keeping the center's doors open seven-days a week and assisting with events, such as the visit from the Heidelberg sports and fitness office.

The center provides service to about 4,000 troops a month and they are always looking for volunteers to lend a hand.

"I think that one thing that everybody forgets is that they don't have family, a lot of times we're their home away from home... while they are recovering from an injury," Parkins said.
"If they leave here smiling, we've done our job."

As wounded service members and staff chatted and chowed down, members of the Florida based Christian band, "Pierce" entertained the crowd.

After dinner, members of the Heidelberg sports and fitness office gave out free goodie bags to service members, filled with clothing items, pens and hats.

Several of the items were donations from Continental Golf and Associates and Installation Management Command Europe.

"We just thought it was something good we could do to hang out with the troops that are injured and to say thanks for what they did and hope they get well soon," Sanders said.

"Everybody should take the opportunity to come down and thank these guys and just hang out. They just want somebody to talk to and somebody to listen to them, and I challenge all the other sports and fitness departments to come out and help out and do the same thing."