KILLEEN, Texas — The Snowball Express took to the skies here once again, Dec. 3, after being held virtually for the past two years due to the pandemic.
Gold Star Families from over 500 locations as far away as Guam, Japan and Togo West, Africa, joined families from the greater Fort Hood area to embark upon an all-expenses-paid vacation to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, courtesy of the Gary Sinise Foundation, in partnership with American Airlines.
The annual event is an initiative created by the foundation and inspired by actor and musician Gary Sinise’s mission to honor fallen heroes and support their surviving family members.
The holidays can be especially tough for families grieving the loss of their loved ones and the program is one of many ways the Fort Hood community provides support.
“You’re talking about family members who have made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Col. Chad R. Foster, commander, U.S. Army Garrison - Fort Hood. “If it’s any way we can bring them a little bit of comfort and a little bit of joy, especially this time of year, I mean it’s something we should be a part of.”
In preparation for the first Snowball Express flight to take place after a two-year hiatus, Fort Hood garrison leaders, city officials, volunteers and airport staff went above and beyond to welcome the 50 Gold Star family members.
Volunteers, airport staff and the flight crew dressed in festive holiday attire and transformed the terminal into a holiday wonderland, fitting for the special group of family members boarding this year’s flight.
Santa made the grueling trip from the North Pole to greet the families, but The Go Team Therapy Dogs stole the show.
Adorned with reindeer antlers and their best holiday ensembles, canines of various breeds provided warm hugs and plenty of doggie kisses.
For some family members, the pups evoked loving memories of their lost heroes.
Teresa Frazier teared up as she reflected on losing her best friend, Sgt. 1st Class Kelvin Frazier, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Armored Division. Teresa’s 18-year-old daughter Jasmin Morales comforted her as she remembered the special relationship Kelvin and her had with their dog.
“It already started out with the puppies being here. That was a great way to start our morning for this trip,” Teresa expressed. “So, with the therapy dogs being here, you never really think about it. We have dogs ourselves and I thought to myself, ‘man if I could have my dog with me’, which is the dog that I shared with Kelvin, then we’d be great. He’s such a good comfort for us. He knows when we’re having an emotional time, he just warms up to us. So having the pups here to do that with was very comforting.”
This was the first Snowball Express trip for Frazier and her daughter, but Bonita Mallard was excited to make some new memories during her second trip.
Mallard’s husband Capt. Torie Mallard, company commander, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, passed away in 2008. Her sons, Torie Mallard Jr., 17, and Joshua Mallard, 15, were too young to remember their first Snowball Express trip, so she was excited for them to have the experience as teens and to bond with other families who have experienced a loss.
“Sometimes we think that everybody doesn’t know what we’re going through, and then when you come to realize there’s so many people here, families that are going through the exact same thing… grief and suffering a loss of a loved one that people don’t understand,” Mallard reflected. “But then you get to meet these other families, the young ladies and boys, they can relate to what you’ve been through. So, it’s good to connect with those families and have a great time, and share your experiences, and cry together, and hug together, and laugh together.”
There were plenty of tears and laughter as families waited to board their flight. American Airlines General Manager Nicole Hills expressed that she hoped the trip would be an experience the families will never forget.
“Today, with the support of American Airlines, we are taking these incredible families on a trip to the most magical place on earth, Disney World,” Hills announced. “It is our hope that through the Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express program, that they will create magical memories and form bonds and friendships with the families that are just like them that will last a lifetime.”
American Airlines donated 11 charter flights and over 700 tickets to ensure that Gold Star Family members from military installations across the world would have the same extraordinary experience. Hills noted that this year’s trip hosted nearly 2000 family members, the largest number to date.
As the families prepared to depart, supporters made their way to the blacktop for a proper send off.
American flags flanked each side of the tarmac and seemed to wave goodbye, as families climbed the stairs to board the American 737 aircraft.
The cabin was adorned with snowflakes that dangled from the ceiling and delighted families as they found their seats.
Everyone on board gathered for an epic photo before takeoff. Yetta Stewart and her 17-year-old daughter Lauryn made sure you could see their smiles among the rest of the group. They lost their hero, Capt. Keith Stewart, 8th Army, seven years ago. Yetta said the Snowball Express experience redefined what family really means.
“Being in the military, you have a … that’s your family but it’s so different when you deal with Snowball Express because you have people who are just like you, dealing with a loss, trying to reestablish themselves in life and … just trying to put the pieces back together as much as possible,” she expressed. “But then when we meet these other families, you have a different understanding of what the true meaning of family is because there’s no judgement, because we’re all experiencing the same thing. And so, you don’t have to put on a front or a façade for anyone…because they understand your story, your walk.”