The first anniversary my parents Army Colonel John I. Pray and LaVerne Pray were able to spend together took place six years after they were married. Following their wedding in 1941, they were posted to serve in the Philippines. Less than a year later, the threat of war was real and my mother returned home to the States. In those days, the means of communication were, at best, sparse. They were able to send the occasional letter, which would bring each a moment of comfort and renewed hope through the long stretches of silence.
In March of 1942 my father was captured and after surviving the Bataan Death March spent the next three and a half years as a prisoner of war in Japan. During his time as a prisoner of war (POW), my mother heard from him only sporadically. He was finally repatriated in September 1945, returning home to my mother after five long years apart.
As you can imagine, my father didn't talk much about his time as a POW, but he did feel strongly that the experience was much harder on my mother than it was for him. He'd say, "I knew your mother was safe, but day in and day out she had to live with the uncertainty of my situation and ultimately my survival."
For five years, my parents missed out on all the special moments that a young couple shares together; anniversaries, date nights, birthdays, holidays and much more. Today, our troops and their families make a similar choice -- and do so freely -- knowing they will miss their own special moments in order to serve our country. Through their service, they allow us to enjoy our own.
Given the values my parents instilled in me, I felt a deep personal desire to serve my country. Like most other military members, I missed out on those nightly dinners, my sons' birthdays and sports games during my 27 years of service. It becomes clear when I review family photos of my sons growing up that I am noticeably absent. I know from personal experience that one of the most powerful ways to lift the spirits of our troops and their families is by helping them experience moments big and small with family, friends and loved ones that we may otherwise take for granted.
It was during my time at Dover Air Force Base that I connected with the USO on a deeply personal level. As many know, Dover is where we bring home the remains of our brave men and women. Many times I stood on the flight line to salute these heroes as they returned home for the final time. It was the USO who stood there beside us, supporting us and the families of the fallen every step of the way.
Several years later I met a Navy officer stationed in Iraq when I was there on a USO tour with the NFL coaches. We had just thanked this officer and his sailors for their service on behalf of 300 million Americans back home.
"No -- thank YOU," he exclaimed. "You don't know how important this is for us to get these reminders of home, of our way of life. You remind us of what it is to be an American and let us know we are not lost or forgotten."
It's important that we do not let these milestones slip away for our service men and women, their families and their loved ones. I've had the great fortune to be the recipient of, a witness to and a part of the great work that is done by the USO. From the support and comfort they offer our wounded, ill and injured troops to simply making it possible for deployed troops to make a phone call to their family, the USO is always by our troops' sides to help them remain connected and experience special moments whenever possible.
This Veterans Day, I would hope all Americans can come together to recognize and fully appreciate what our troops and their families willingly give up so that they are able to enjoy these moments with their own families. Collectively, we can say thank you and help ensure that these special moments don't slip away for our service men and women, for their families or for their loved ones.
I encourage everyone to visit www.USOmoments.org to learn more about the challenges our troops and their families face and how the USO helps to support and comfort, connect, and entertain them. By visiting the site you can send a thank-you note to our troops and enable more moments by donating to help provide the resources that support troops and their families serving around the world. And remember, a single moment is all it takes to make a difference.
To see more about the USO and the troops and families we serve, please take a moment to watch our video highlighting our recent 2013 USO Gala.