I reported to Fort Benning, Georgia, in October 1991 to set off on a new journey.

I had tried college for a number of years, only to end up with a lot of college and no degree to show for it. Between colleges and degree plans, I worked several odd jobs to keep a little money rolling in and pay for bills. My resume included pizza deliverer, Arby's sandwich maker, Chinese food deliverer, Chinese food maker, roofing assistant, home construction nail-off expert -- to name a few.

It became clear after a while that the Army held the promise of something greater. So naturally, I sought advice from my mom. After all, she had been through a lot in life and was still standing.

My mom and I had always been tight during my growing up years. Part of that is because my dad was a pipeliner. Pipeliners are often worse than the military about "deploying." My father stayed gone more than he stayed home. That's because staying home meant we starved, and my father wasn't going to let that happen to his family.

So I grew really close to my mom. She always had this way of letting me vent about all my problems, and then gently guiding me to the truth every time. Every time without fail. I learned years later what her secret was -- her undying faith in God no matter what the circumstances, and her unyielding prayer time no matter what was going on.

So when it came time for me to make a decision about joining the infantry or continuing to pursue my 24-year bachelor's degree, my mom listened as I vented about my life, then gently guided me to the truth in her way that made it feel like I had come to the revelation all on my own.

I watched her tear up the day I left for basic training. It would be one of very few days that I would spend with my mom ever again.

After graduating basic training, I ventured to my first duty station at 3d U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) in Washington, D.C., and quickly forgot those talks, those many moments I had shared with my mom. She wrote to me from time to time, although I rarely returned the favor.

I remembered birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, but usually only with a phone call. Our relationship faded into a haze over my next four years with The Old Guard. I was busy living an honorable life in the Honor Guard, busy marching, and shining uniforms, and conducting firing parties at funerals.

The last time I saw my mom, she came to visit me in D.C. I noticed that she looked weaker than usual, more frail, but it was a look at had seen since graduating high school, when she was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. She had beat the odds back then and the brutal chemotherapy left the cancer retreating into virtual non-existence.

Unfortunately, 13 years later the cancer returned -- this time with greater punishment. Still, her faith never wavered. If anything, it got stronger. So did her love; not just for me but also for others.

The last time I heard her voice was March 20, 1996, when I was attending the Basic Journalist Course at Defense Information School. The phone rang in the hallway of the barracks where I resided and somebody started yelling down the hall.

"PILGRIM! THE PHONE'S FOR YOU!"

I casually walked down the hallway and picked up the receiver.

My sister was on the other end, sobbing and in hysterics. She told me mom was dying and wanted to talk to me. I was stunned as my precious mom got on the phone. All I could hear was gurgled breathing.

I kept repeating that I loved her as I wept into the phone. She couldn't respond, but I knew she was there with me. She had always been there for me, even when I wasn't there for her.

I found out later she had literally drowned to death because her lungs kept filling up with fluid from the harsh effects of the chemotherapy and radiation.

That was 22 years ago almost to the day. Not a day goes by that I don't think of my personal hero, who prayed me into heaven and loved on me when I was completely unlovable. I have since learned that heroes come in many forms, but few are more beautiful than my mom.

Never miss the opportunity to tell your heroes how much they mean to you. Those opportunities don't last forever.