Hundreds of fallen servicemembers' families "climb aboard" for a fun-filled time of renewal.
It was to be my last trip of the 2010 calendar year—a quick one-day visit to Dallas to speak before the PVA chapter presidents and national directors on the subject of advertising and the Internet. I wasn't overly thrilled at the prospect of leaving the warmth of Phoenix for overcast skies and rain. Added to that, our publications office was finally moving into its newly remodeled suite, so there was much to be done at home.
We arrived at the Dallas Sheraton Hotel to scores of children lining hallways, outer lobbies, and parking lots. Outside, rows of school buses clogged Olive Street while Dallas Police motor officers stood guard. This was not on the agenda for the 2010 PVA Chapter Presidents' and National Directors' Seminar, I thought. Children of all ages scurried about, and it seemed as though the hotel had been overrun by inhabitants from Neverland.
Quite ironically, PVA was sharing the hotel with participants in the 5th Annual Snowball Express—fallen U.S. military members' children who have gathered each year since the program's inception in early 2006. Its mission: Provide hope and new memories to the children of military men and women who died while on active duty since 9/11.
Santa and Snowball Express volunteers greet families arriving at Dallas' American Airlines terminal.
On Veterans Day, we honor the service of our military personnel who give selflessly and serve bravely, and we mourn their loss on Memorial Day. Unlike wars of the past, we now shake their hands and give them parades. We send care packages and fly our flags. Our nation has realized the sacrifice of the few and the cost of freedom for the many—but who remembers the fallen heroes' children left behind? Are they any less heroes? Have they sacrificed any less?
I would be remiss to not dig deeper into this event unfolding before my eyes and pay it its due respect, for hours before my arrival to Dallas, I was one of the ignorant. I was in for an emotional awakening.
Heather Gunn (Freeport, Maine) was attending with her 6-year-old son, Gabriel Bean. Gabriel's father was Army National Guard Sgt. Allen Bean Jr., who was killed in action May 5, 2005. Gabriel had never met his father.
"This is our fourth event," says Gunn. "It's a chance for Gabe to meet other kids in similar situations and help him to know who his father was."
Heather and Gabriel were one of more than 1,500 kids and spouses who traveled for a week of laughing, hugging, and sometimes crying. And although Snowball Express caters to the children, it's also for the spouses left behind.
"For me, it's a chance to meet other wives," says Gunn. "Its always a very emotional time, but they keep us quite busy with activities. It's hard to believe they are able to put this all together and even more unbelievable there are so many people who care."
And busy they were. I was impressed by the flurry of activities, special events, and venues dedicated to these kids. To print the calendar of events would take up more room than my editors allow, but here is a glimpse into Snowball Express: A performance of "The Nutcracker Suite" at University of Texas–Arlington, then off to Resistol Arena for the Mesquite Rodeo, followed by a performance by Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band. Next, stop at The Chill Zone, visit The Gallo Family Lounge and the Kids Kamp—and that's just day one.
"This is an impressive and heartwarming event," says Jim Sack, Mountain States PVA Chapter president and national director. "This is an honorable organization that deserves PVA's attention."
Snowball Express comes to life through the many organizations and volunteers who give of their time. The families are flown in by American Airlines, which dedicates six aircraft solely for this mission.
"It's the right thing to do," says Jim Palmersheim, AA pilot and Snowball Express Board of Directors member. "Snowball Express is an all-volunteer organization that provides us with a sense of purpose driven by a sense of sacrifice. The Snowball Express mission represents the very essence of what defines us as a country, in our communities, and as individuals who recognize that freedom is not free. Serving on the Snowball Express Board on behalf of families that have paid that price is truly an honor and a privilege."
That sense of purpose and honor takes on meaning when visiting the many areas that have been set up for the families. Chili's Restaurant sponsored The Chill Zone, a specially designated area just for young teens. The Zone hosted video game stations, pool tables, refreshments, and even a live band. Looking at the faces of these kids, you'd never know each had attended a military funeral.
For the adults, Gallo Family Vineyard sponsored the parents room. There, parents received gift bags, banquet-style food and holiday snacks—and, of course, enjoyed a glass of wine.
It was easy to tell who the first-time parents were through their tears. And though they were never alone, it was also easy to tell new friendships were being formed.
This was Susan Hernandez's fifth year attending Snowball Express. She and her children, Christian (10) and Stacey (13), came from Fairbanks, Alaska. Her husband, Army Sgt. Irving Hernandez Jr., was killed in action July 12, 2006.
"We are still healing," says Hernandez. "The pain never goes away. It's something you just learn to deal with."
Irene Prather of Evens, Ga., was there with her two kids, Cheyenne, 13, and Aaron, 15. CWO Clint Prather was killed in action April 6, 2005.
"This is our second time here, and it's a wonderful experience," says Prather. "I met a new widow at home and introduced her to Snowball Express, so we came to be with her."
The stories are never ending, but the cost of freedom is made almost bearable for these families, thanks to some motivated individuals and a grateful nation.
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