Tess In Her Own Words: A Salute to Service

The week of Feb. 14 is a special one for a few different reasons. Most people recognize the "Day of Love," which landed right in the middle of the week this year. Valentine's Day reminded everyone to appreciate love in every form.

For my family, Feb. 13 was also a significant Tuesday this year – a certain "Fat Tuesday" to be exact. I'm from Louisiana, and for as long as I can remember, Mardi Gras week was almost treated as a second Thanksgiving. Schools back home are canceled for the week and families get a little extra time to spend together … along with a lot of extra King Cake.

But this year, I observed what I now consider an even dearer holiday. The week of Feb. 14 is also recognized every year as the National Salute to Veteran Patients. I recently learned that during this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs invites the community to pay tribute and appreciation to veterans through a variety of activities from ward visits to concert events. People are encouraged to visit hospitalized veterans and become more involved as volunteers at Veterans Affairs Medical Centers.

The more I learned about this National Salute, the more I found that I had a strong connection to it. My own grandfather, Dexter Gary, who we affectionately referred to as "Big D," served in the army in Vietnam as a field surgeon*. *After graduating from med school in Louisiana, Big D decided to enlist and volunteer his services as a doctor. He was ranked as a captain in the army, and in 1968, he was stationed to head a MASH unit in Vietnam to operate on the wounded. Like any and all of these veteran patients, he once made the sacrifice to leave my mother's family and serve our country using his best God-given skills.

Big D was the most honorable person I had ever known. And he was following the example set by his own father, my great-grandfather "Pops," who also served his country fighting in World War II. He drove trucks and was a part of the army that advanced through France all the way to Germany after D-Day.

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Pops was one of the last of the remaining "Greatest Generation" veterans before we lost him in late summer of 2015. Big D passed away unexpectedly a few weeks before Pops that year, after suffering a heart attack while visiting his father in the hospital. My family, and the country, lost two great heroes that summer.

As much as I cherished my time with my grandparents, I always wished that I would have asked them for more stories about their lives. Our veterans are living, breathing, and history. Their accounts are fascinating, and their bravery is astounding. So this year, when I made my first visit to a veterans hospital, I wasted no time.

"Tell me a story" was my goal, and I made the request within the first few minutes I spent with each patient. And stories they told!

Every February, our team visits VA hospitals around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The veterans and volunteers like to say how much we are making their day, but they have no idea how much they are making ours. As my teammate Heather remarked, "They said they were going to tell everyone how they met us today, and we're going to do the same."

I can't help but feel my grandfathers coming through to me in special ways this year. I was especially looking forward to our veterans hospital visits this year because in December I had the opportunity to go on my first USO tour.

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have completed over 80 USO tours in more than 50 different countries*. *And this year, I was invited to be a part of the 82nd tour to visit four stateside air force bases: Malmstrom in Montana, Columbus in Mississippi, Dyess in Texas, and Barksdale in none other than Louisiana. How incredible is that?

As the only Louisiana native on our tour group, I found an immediate common ground with many of the families there. Even with the military in my own family, I had never been to a base before, and now I had the humbling chance to visit military in my own home state.

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have given me opportunities that I could've only imagined: I've cheered-on the greatest team in American sports and danced alongside the most unbelievably beautiful women. But as cliché as it may sound, I can honestly say it's the experiences off the field that make it a dream come true. This USO tour was hands-down the most incredible thing I've done with this organization.

Before each visit, I said a quick prayer to my grandparents and hoped they would be there with me. I hoped they would help me open my heart and find the words of encouragement or hope that each person I came in contact with needed to hear.

The people I met were *my *generation; they are men and women who have served, but they are also alongside those who are anxiously waiting to be deployed overseas any day. I was nervous with the seemingly overwhelming responsibility we had to be a beacon of joy to these service members during the holiday season. But I quickly came to realize that although we were striving to bring cheer to these families, we left every day feeling renewed and inspired by them.

I am forever changed by these experiences. I have a new perspective and an even more extensive appreciation for military that I didn't know was possible. And I will forever more observe the week of Feb. 14 – along with USO day on Feb. 4! – as a time to step out of my comfort zone and go the extra mile to show my love to our country's heroes.

If I can share anything I've learned, it is to listen to people's stories, no matter how hard it might be, and most of all, say thank you!

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