14th annual Tribute to the Troops reinforces WWE's dedication to military

"Just their courage and their commitment -- their excellence -- it's so inspiring," said the Big Show. "These guys are really out there putting freedom forward and putting life and limb on the line for me to enjoy the things that I enjoy." Courtesy of WWE

When tasked to describe the feeling she gets each year from taking part in honoring the United States military, Stephanie McMahon admits she has trouble.

It's not that the WWE's chief brand ambassador is at a loss for words to try. In fact, she often repeats herself in echoing such heartfelt sentiments as honor and pride, gratitude and privilege. But McMahon will tell you herself that words don't do it justice -- not after the experiences she has been privy to.

When it comes to visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, or laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia with the Paralyzed Veterans of America, there simply are no words.

"I can't describe to you that feeling of humility to be able to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives defending our freedom," McMahon told ESPN.com. "Basically, it's a privilege, and that's how WWE looks at it. It's the least that we can do to say thank you to the servicemen and women and their families who sacrifice so much."

The WWE's commitment to the military began long before its first Tribute to the Troops card in 2003 at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq, an idea that spawned from a conversation between former superstar John Bradshaw Layfield and WWE chairman Vince McMahon. The annual event now serves as an epicenter of sorts for the company's charitable mission as a whole.

The 14th annual Tribute to the Troops card takes place Tuesday night at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. (airing Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on USA Network), with WWE providing tickets for military members and their families in attendance. The pro wrestling card caps a busy day that includes WWE superstars visiting all five branches of the military at seven different bases, along with hosting a Be a STAR Rally (Show Tolerance and Respect) for more than 1,000 students at nearby Fort Meade.

Current NXT superstar Kenneth Crawford has seen these events from both sides. After serving four years with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in the U.S. Marines and attending WWE shows as a serviceman, he is now an active member of the company's partnership with Hire Heroes USA and a regular visitor to veterans hospitals.

"In my personal opinion, [WWE] represents and appreciates military more than any other company out there," Crawford said. "They take the time to reach out to a base or VA hospital and that speaks volumes to us because there are so many service members, and when you watch superstars coming in who you grew up appreciating, they thank you. But in retrospect it's like you are thanking them for entertaining you for so many years."

The Big Show, a willing regular on Tribute to the Troops shows since the beginning, believes he brings "a little piece of America" to the military members he visits. It's the least he can do, he said, to show them the respect he holds for their sacrifices. Raised in South Carolina, the Big Show describes his childhood home as "very patriotic." His father, a mechanic, served in the Air Force, as did the Big Show's grandfather, a veteran of World War II. His mother was a police officer. Even today, the Big Show's 19-year-old daughter, a college student, serves in the Air Force ROTC.

"It just puts everything in perspective," he said, of visiting with servicemen and women. "I brighten their day. I interact with them. Just their courage and their commitment -- their excellence -- it's so inspiring. These guys are really out there putting freedom forward and putting life and limb on the line for me to enjoy the things that I enjoy."

The Big Show acknowledged a kinship of sorts that's often naturally present between WWE superstar and military service member. Although their vocation is far different, the common bond of dedication is felt immediately.

"My job is a little bit different. My commitment to duty is my schedule and the demands I keep up with," he added. "But it's the same with these young men and women. Their commitment to excellence in their line of duty is inspiring.

"I think I have it tough -- man, I'm a cupcake compared to what they have."

Crawford, who served from 2008 to 2012 and was stationed at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego, echoed those similarities, citing the dedication and discipline needed in both vocations to be successful.

"Coming from both sides, the dedication in the military spectrum is going out and serving your country and not knowing what's next," Crawford said. "Traveling, putting in the training, being away from family -- it's the same aspect that we have as WWE superstars. Sustaining the injuries and knowing how to fight through it to obtain the goal that you want to obtain."

In April, Crawford spent time over WrestleMania weekend in Dallas helping veterans prepare for the often difficult adjustment back to civilian life through the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). It's an initiative that hits home for Crawford, who found himself in a similar position after leaving the Marines.

Crawford, who signed with WWE in April 2015, hopes to one day appear as a performer on a Tribute to the Troops card as a way to inspire his fellow veterans.

"Just for the troops to see someone who came from the same background, doing something to let them know 'I can serve my country and attain my dream,'" he said. "Myself, I served my country and wanted to become a professional wrestler. By me doing that, I think I could give them hope, like maybe they could do the same thing one day."

To describe WWE's support of the armed forces as a company passion might not do it justice. There's an "all hands on deck" mentality to Tribute to the Troops that very much starts at the top, evidenced not only by Vince McMahon visiting military bases in the Middle East on Christmas day over the years but his willingness to absorb finishing moves from "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and John Cena (while dressed as Santa Claus) to the delight of the active-duty members in attendance.

"It is my greatest honor to support our servicemen and women, and we do it in the best way we know how, and that is to entertain them and make them smile," Vince McMahon said. "But what servicemen and women may not realize is that we are the ones who are profoundly changed after meeting them. Their courage and bravery is truly inspirational."

Vince McMahon learned the pro wrestling business from his father, Vincent J. McMahon, who served with the Coast Guard in World War II. But the younger McMahon spent the majority of his youth raised by his mother in humble circumstances in North Carolina, where Stephanie McMahon believes the roots of her family's patriotism were born.

"My father grew up in an 8-foot-wide trailer and didn't have any indoor plumbing," she said. "Through hard work and perseverance and the opportunities provided by our great nation, he and my mom were able to build this billion-dollar global brand. That is living the American dream; that is the epitome of living the American dream. They couldn't do that without our nation's military defending our right to do so and making us the greatest nation in the world."

As imposing a shadow as WWE's top executives and larger-than-life talent cast while performing on the bright stage of sports entertainment, there's a transformation of approachability that happens at events such as Tribute to the Troops, which often features superstars taking part in training competitions and drills.

No matter where the events are, the Big Show loves to tag along -- when he can. Despite collegiate options in basketball, the Big Show strongly considered joining the Marine Corps after high school until being talked out of it as a 7-foot, 313-pound senior.

"I was just too big," he said. "I was too big for the equipment to ride in, the equipment to wear. So the recruiter actually advised me it probably wouldn't have been a good life for me, which I'm kind of sad about because I think I would have had a good time. But he's probably right."

The Big Show's size also got in the way years later while visiting the Persian Gulf with WWE on a Handshake Tour: He wasn't allowed on an aircraft carrier for safety reasons.

"The Department of Defense wouldn't let me go because I was too big for the ship," he said, following it up with a deep chuckle. "I got left out of the reindeer games."

Both Stephanie McMahon, who serves as a member of USO Metro's board of directors, and the Big Show agreed that there was nothing more emotional or inspiring as part of their annual trip than visiting the wounded warriors, some of whom have lost limbs in battle.

"You talk to them and all they want to do is get back to defending our freedom," Stephanie McMahon said. "They want to get back to the front lines, they want to get back to their job. It has always just absolutely blown me away. There is no feeling sorry for yourself. It is all about getting back to doing their job and defending the country that they love."

The Tribute to the Troops card is emanating from the nation's capital for the first time. For the Big Show, it adds an extra layer of significance.

"If you are in Washington, D.C., and you're not patriotic, you are in the wrong place," he said. "I look forward to a fantastic show and really busting my big butt to put on the best performance I can to say thank you."