HUNTER ARMY AIRFIELD, Ga. - For Betsy Whisenhunt and her daughter, Allison, 7, the holidays are an especially difficult time -- and have been since 2008. That's when her husband and Allison's father, Sgt. 1st Class Jerald Whisenhunt of the 25th Infantry Division, was killed in Iraq.
But thanks to Operation: Snowball Express, Betsy, Allison and about 1,700 other Family Members of Fallen service members get together around the holidays for an all-expenses-paid weekend of fun and bonding.
This is the Whisenhunts' second time joining the Snowball Express, a nonprofit organization that has brought a weekend of holiday fun and friendship to the Families of Fallen service members since 2006. This year for the first time, the Snowball Express left out of the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, along with more than 70 other airports around the country and the world, to bring these Gold Star Family Members to Dallas-Fort Worth, Dec. 9-13.
"I am really grateful that American (Airlines) flies us there and that all of these people volunteer and donate their time and money because my kid gets to smile," Betsy said. "The first year we went, that smile was rarely seen. I get to see a big smile on her face and I know that I didn't have to struggle to give her this, either."
Joining the Whisenhunts, who recently moved to Savannah, at the Savannah Airport were eight other Coastal Empire Families, including the Family of a Soldier honored at Warrior's Walk.
Staff Sgt. Darren Hubbell, a Senior Line Medic with the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, was on his fourth deployment to Iraq when he was killed by a roadside bomb, June 20, 2007.
His wife, Dana, and stepsons Franklin Rigdon, 16, and Nash Rigdon, 15, boarded the American Airlines American Eagle Snowball Express flight to Dallas for the second time this year.
"It's a great experience, we meet new friends and we get to reminisce about our Fallen Soldiers," Franklin said. "I think it especially helps the widows -- they get to really reminisce and talk to each other."
At the Savannah Airport, the Families were given a proper send off by members of the Savannah United Service Organization, U.S. Representative John Barrow, American Airlines employees in Santa hats and, of course, St. Nicholas himself.
American Airlines and American Eagle donated nine chartered aircraft and provided free travel on commercial flights for the Families traveling from 75 cities across the country, as well as Germany, Guam and the Philippines.
Flying the group from Savannah was co-pilot Dave Vinnedge, who adorned his pilot's jacket with photo buttons of the service member of every Family on the flight -- including his own son, Lance Cpl. Phillip Vinnegde, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
"We just lost him last year, so this is really special to me," Vinnedge said, fighting back tears. "I really appreciate being able to be a part of this."
After the Family Members found their loved one's photo on Vinnedge's jacket, they boarded the plane that took them to a long weekend of fun in the Lone Star State, including a trip to Six Flags Over Texas, a private performance at the Mesquite Championship Rodeo and a concert by Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band Band. But, most importantly, they had the chance to bond with others going through what most can't comprehend.
"My daughter gets to know that people appreciate that she unwillingly gave up something so important in her life," Betsy said. "And she also knows she's not alone and she's going to have support behind her and smiling with her -- she get to see that it's OK to be a kid."