KILLEEN, Texas — An initiative to honor fallen heroes and support their surviving family members and five days of fun and relationship building activities at Walt Disney World in Florida equals one extraordinary experience thanks to Snowball Express and the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Snowball Express is an annual event that provides all-expense-paid vacations to Gold Star families who have lost loved ones in military service.
The program started in 2006 and became part of the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2017 as part of the famed actor and musician’s mission to honor fallen heroes and support their surviving family members.
The first annual Snowball Express Disney event was held the following year, and the organization has been making Disney dreams come true for the deserving military families ever since.
Thirty-seven families arrived at Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport Dec. 2 here before dawn to enjoy the traditional Snowball Express send-off and connect with other families before the trip.
The Go Team Therapy dogs provided much appreciated kisses and cuddles for family members as they waited to board their flight.
In partnership with the Gary Sinise Foundation, American Airlines provided 11 charter flights specifically for Snowball Express passengers and 44 total flights from as far away as Guam, to ensure the 1,800 Gold Star families, just shy of the largest number of 2,000 last year, arrived safely in Orlando.
Maj. Gen. Ben Cattermole, III Armored Corps deputy commanding general for support (U.K.), was on hand to see the families off and thank them for their sacrifice.
“All I want is to thank everybody for their support,” he said. “To American Airlines and all the volunteers, Gary Sinise Foundation and the biker groups for coming out to join us, and of course to the families, I wish all the very best and thank you for everything that you’ve done, and your families have done on behalf of the United States.”
Snowball Express represents an opportunity for grieving families to connect, bond with other families and forge life-long friendships.
Katy Thom and Lara Smith meet in 2015 through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and were looking forward to heading to Disney together.
This is the fourth Snowball trip for Thom and her sons, Elijah, 16, and Logan, 11, who lost their patriarch, Sgt. Michael Thom, in a motorcycle accident in 2014.
“We met through Snowball and we always stay in touch,” Thom said of Smith. “We’ve been friends ever since and then we’ve made new friends here.”
Smith said the two were destined to meet.
“We didn’t know but, we lived thirty minutes away from each other at the time and we met in San Antonio. It’s nice that we can relate to each other.”
This is the second trip to Disney for Smith, who lost her husband Staff Sgt. Tyler Smith in 2012 during his third deployment in Afghanistan, and her children Wyatt, 16, and Carson, 13.
She conveyed the support from other families is invaluable.
“We get to support each other through our grief, we meet other people and we can support them and we get the same support back,” she said. “Everybody kind of comes together and it just brings joy to everybody.”
“There are people out there that actually care … you know … and want to know what’s going on and want to help us in any way possible and it means more than anything to know that,” she expressed.
Just before they were ready to depart, Gary Sinise Foundation Ambassadors retired Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch and his wife Sarah let the families know just how important they are.
“You are never forgotten. We never forget about the families,” Lynch said. “And that’s why we do what we do with the Snowball Express.”
Though he couldn’t be there to personally see the families off, Sinise made sure to let them know how he felt in a letter read by Lynch.
“To all of our Snowball Express families in attendance, I send you my deepest love, appreciation and tight hugs from here,” Sinise wrote.
“Have the best time and always remember we do not forget. We do not forget your loved one or your sacrifices,” he continued. “From all of us at the Gary Sinise Foundation, we love you. I look forward to seeing you soon. Have a great trip.”
Applause gave way to smiles and giggles as families prepared to make their way to the tarmac to board flight 9711 to San Antonio, then on to Houston before its final destination in Orlando.
As the families prepared to depart, Fort Cavazos officials and volunteers descended upon the blacktop for a traditional send-off, complete with American flags on each side of the tarmac, handshakes and well wishes from volunteers and warm welcomes from the flight crew.
Everyone on board gathered for an epic photo before takeoff, and after going under the water cannon salute provided by the Fort Cavazos Directorate of Emergency Services Fire Department Station 2, the Snowball Express took to the skies once again.