KILLEEN — Surviving children and spouses of fallen service members departed from Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport on their way to Disney World as part of the annual Snowball Express on Saturday.

More than 50 Gold Star family members from Central Texas boarded an American Airlines flight to celebrate the holiday season by enjoying a five-day trip to the Florida theme park.

The Gary Sinise Foundation’s Snowball Express program will host the excursion for 1,722 surviving children along with their parent or guardian during the retreat, which will provide not only entertainment but inspiring programs, encouraging critical peer-to-peer support for these families.

Sudarat Kirby and her children, 17-year-old Marshal and 15-year-old Alice, were one of those Gold Star families taking the opportunity to reconnect with familiar faces. Sudarat’s husband, Staff Sgt. Darian Kirby, died in March 2010, following a brief illness. Her and her two children have participated in the Snowball Express for the past eight years.

“My kids really like it because they don’t have to explain anything to anybody because they (the children) know each other from different events and they don’t have to explain why they are there,” Sudarat said. “It’s a different kind of bond that they have than the friends at school.”

Marshal is a senior at Harker Heights High School and this will be his final year of participating in the Snowball Express. He said attending the event is about the camaraderie.

“Going somewhere we can relate to others and talk about our stories and be there for each other while having a good time is what I get out of it,” Marshal said. “I’m looking forward to seeing my friends.”

Alice said she is looking forward to visiting the theme park and going to Florida and enjoys being able to talk with other individuals with similar backstories. She said explaining her situation to people who haven’t experienced the loss of a parent can be awkward.

“It’s like going to a place without judgement and you can tell your story and the response is not ‘Oh, sorry’ it’s more of an ‘I understand’,” Alice explained.

Harvey Mikulencak, a U.S. Army survivor outreach services support coordinator, has been involved with the Snowball Express for eight years and said it’s the children that brings him back every year.

“I just love being a part of the Snowball Express family and watching the kids grow and just seeing their reactions when they go to Snowball Express and the opportunities they have to meet other kids that are really going through the same things they are going through,” Mikulencak said.

For some children, this will be their first time to Disney World. Six-year-old Canon Martin, who lost his father at the age of two, is looking forward to the trip.

“I like all the characters and seeing the parade and having fun,” Martin said.

Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra read a proclamation prior to family members boarding the plane, declaring Dec. 8, 2018 as “Snowball Express Day.”

“This started in 2006 with a simple goal, to provide hope and new memories during the holiday to the children of fallen soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice will serving on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001,” Segarra said. “The children of the fallen military heroes are a special group that should never be forgotten by this grateful nation and this community.”

Representatives from III Corps and Fort Hood, including British Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, III Corps and Fort Hood deputy commander for sustainment, and Fort Hood garrison commander Col. Hank Perry, were present to show their support and solidarity.

“I put on this uniform, I raised my right hand personally, to say that I would support and defend our nation because I know my family, no matter what happens to me, will be taken care of,” Perry said. “This foundation, this event, this experience that these kiddos are about to experience with the Snowball Express going to Disney World, is going to be an opportunity to tell them thank you and we love you.”

Presenting sponsor American Airlines provided the air travel, flight crews and hundreds of team member volunteers to carry out 14 chartered flights, departing from 26 cities, to pick up more than 1,722 Gold Star family children and spouses and bring them to their destination in Orlando.

Snowball Express began in 2006 with a letter written by a fallen soldier to his wife, only to be opened should he perish in battle. While the letter expressed many things, one wish was that they visit Disneyland. From that letter, Snowball Express was created to bring together the children and surviving spouses of fallen U.S. military heroes for a healing retreat.

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