By Danielle DeSimone

As liaison for the 101st Airborne Division and 18th Airborne Corps at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Army Sgt. 1st Class Julio Mella’s job is to help service members during their time at the medical center.

But Mella never anticipated that would also mean saving a soldier’s life – let alone doing so while completing a puzzle at the USO.

The Role of a Liaison

Army Sgt. First Class Julio Mella at the USO Warrior Center. | Photo credit Sandi Gohn/USO

For many service members, being admitted to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center can be a lonely and disorienting experience.

Beyond their injuries or illnesses, most service members, separated from their units or from friends and family back home, don’t know any people on base in Germany and they can feel isolated in the confines of their hospital rooms.

That’s where the USO Warrior Center and liaisons like Mella come in.

As a liaison, Mella is responsible for visiting the four to ten patients he is assigned to twice a day, every day. He encourages them to talk to him if they need to, but he doesn’t ask them any difficult questions. He also makes a point to make sure they know about the USO Warrior Center Landstuhl, often walking newcomers by the center so they know its location and hours of operation.

“That’s the USO,” Mella said in a September 2018 interview. “That’s like your home away from home here.”

Most of all, Mella tries to help his patients find positive ways to take their minds off their time in the hospital and to think of things other than just their daily medical procedures and treatments. He often suggests that his patients go to the USO, offering to join them for meals, movies or video games.

Photo credit Sandi Gohn/USO

A liason walks his patient out of the USO Warrior Center.

“The USO is there to keep their mind at ease and to help,” Mella said. “They make you feel welcome, and that makes a big difference in a hospital setting.”

A former Landstuhl patient himself, Mella knows the stress that can come from being treated at the hospital.

He distinctly recalls how, in 2010, his liaison told him that if he needed anything, day or night, she would be there for him, and the sense of relief this support provided him during his recovery. Now, as the liaison himself, Mella shares these same sentiments with his patients.

“That’s why I take this job so personally,” Mella said. “I am determined, focused and committed to being there for them whenever they need me.”

“To me, this is not a duty. This is a calling. It’s the most important and significant assignment that I’ve ever had in the military.”

Mella and the Life-Saving Puzzle

One day, Mella was sitting alone at the USO doing a puzzle when a service member, who was not one of his patients, approached him and quietly stood beside his table. After a few minutes, the patient asked Mella if he could join him and Mella, sensing the service member’s need for connection, immediately said yes and invited him to sit down and help solve the puzzle.

As the pair started to work on the puzzle, the service member went to introduce himself, but Mella quickly interrupted him.

“I don’t need to know to know your name,” Mella said. “I just want to know that you’re okay.”

Photo credit Sandi Gohn/USO

Army Sgt. First Class Julio Mella completes a puzzle at the USO Warrior Center.

With this quiet understanding, Mella and the service member continued work on the puzzle together at the USO. Mella even showed his companion tricks to help him solve the puzzle faster. Eventually, Mella had to leave to check on his patients at the medical center, but as he stood up, the service member asked him if he would be at the USO the next day.

Mella had not planned to come back the next day, but he told the service member that he would be there.

The next day, Mella and the service member found themselves at the puzzle table together. They avoided the topic of how the service member had ended up at the hospital, and simply continued to build out the puzzle together. For the next few days, the two continued to meet at the USO and with each passing day, the service member arrived more and more excited to solve the puzzle.

Later, as an ERPSS (En-Route Patient Staging System) squadron prepared to transport patients back to the United States, Mella saw the same service member from the puzzle table preparing for departure.

With his bag in hand, he approached Mella, gave him a hug and said, “Thank you for everything – and thank you for saving my life.”

Photo credit Sandi Gohn/USO

Army Sgt. First Class Julio Mella relaxes at the USO Warrior Center.

Confused, Mella asked the service member what he meant. The man explained that the day he had met Mella, he had planned to go down to the USO to get a cup of coffee and then return to his hospital room to commit suicide.

It had been a busy day at the USO Warrior Center when the two had met. USO volunteers were serving lunch and the couches and chairs were crowded with service members from various branches watching movies together.

But this particular service member had noticed Mella because he was sitting alone, off in a corner by himself with the puzzle. The patient said that that’s how he had felt at the time – completely alone.

Photo credit Sandi Gohn/USO

Service members complete a puzzle at the USO Warrior Center.

The conversations he had with Mella and the time they spent putting the puzzle together that day had comforted the service member. He changed his mind and did not commit suicide.

Instead, he returned to the USO over the new few days to complete the puzzle and now he was returning to the United States.

Mella never learned his name.

A Piece of the Puzzle to Healing Invisible Wounds

According to the Blue Star Families 2018 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 13% of active-duty service members admit to having suicidal thoughts while serving in the military.

In 2018, the U.S. military experienced the highest number of suicides among active-duty service members in about six years and, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), PTS/PTSD rates are 15 times higher among active-duty personnel than among civilians.

Photo credit Sandi Gohn/USO

The USO Warrior Center Landstuhl on Kaisersalutern Base, Germany.

While suicide prevention and PTS/PTSD among service members are complicated issues not easily solved by a puzzle, USO centers, programs and dedicated service members like Mella help strengthen and support our military during challenging times, which can make all the difference.

After this encounter, Mella began regularly inviting service members to join him at the USO Warrior Center to solve puzzles.

He usually pieces together the corners of the puzzle, but then often has to leave the table. When he returns, he usually finds service members trying to solve the puzzle, either alone or together in a group.

“Sometimes in life, everything breaks into little pieces, and you have to put it back together,” Mella said.

Photo credit Sandi Gohn/USO

Soldiers recovering at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center relax at the USO Warrior Center.

“So that’s what puzzles symbolize for me – all those pieces that have crumbled, and you have to have the patience and resilience to put them back one by one.”

When asked about his work as a liaison for his fellow service members, Mella brought the USO’s mission to life with just one sentence.

“I’m just a simple man doing simple things for an extraordinary group of people – our wounded warriors.”

- Senior Content Marketing Manager Sandi Gohn and former Director of Content Strategy Chad Stewart contributed to this report.