It didn’t take long for the dozens of children gathered at the Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport on Friday to become friends. They may have not known each other for long, but they all had one thing in common: They had a military parent who died in the years since 9/11.
Snowball Express, a national nonprofit that benefits the children and spouses of fallen soldiers, treats these families to an all-expense-paid four-day weekend in a U.S. city during the holiday season.
The purpose of the weekend, held in Dallas this year, is not to grieve, but just to relax, said Larry Shatto, local organizer of the event.
“There is no big memorial for the fathers — because all of them are heroes,” Shatto said. “The idea is that these kids will do nothing but have fun for four days.”
This weekend, 1,700 children ages 5 to 18 and their parents will fly into Dallas-Fort Worth from cities all over the U.S. for four days of activities including trips to Six Flags Over Texas, the Fort Worth Rodeo and a concert by actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band.
American Airlines donated 35 commercial flights and nine charter flights for the event.
“The intention is not to ever forget the sacrifices these families have made but to ease some of the pain they are going through,” said Dale Morris, regional vice president of American Eagle.
On Friday afternoon, 84 children and guardians were enjoying Wii video game consoles, movies and refreshments as they waited to load their chartered American Airlines 737.
Harker Heights Army widow Denisa Thomas said most of the year she does a good job of putting up a mask, because being without her former life partner can be very scary.
“You lost the most wonderful thing in life and so you don’t want to make a bad decision with what you have and just make things worse,” Thomas said, looking over at her 15-year-old daughter Tarrisa Thomas.
Six years ago, Thomas lost her husband, Chief Warrant Officer-2 Terry M. Thomas, during an Apache helicopter training exercise at a base in Germany.
The family, who was living in Germany at the time, moved to Harker Heights to start building a life in Texas.
“Home is where your husband and you make home,” Thomas said. “Not having that is very confusing.”
After her husband’s death, Thomas said the Army reached out to her and put her in touch with organizations of other Army widows. That is how she heard about Snowball Express.
One of the hardest parts of losing her husband in the Army is the way people treat her special, which ends up being a constant reminder of her loss, Thomas said.
When her children are at Snowball Express, they are able to relax because they are around other children going through the same difficulties.
“They feel normal,” Thomas said. “It is the one time of the year.”
Her son, Ty Thomas, 13, had just one thing in mind as he waited for the plane to arrive at the airport terminal.
“Just going into the teen room and just chillin’,” he said.
Snowball Express rents a conference room at the hotel in Dallas just for teenagers and the young people often stay up until 4 a.m. playing video games, watching movies and socializing.
The Harker Heights teen also was looking forward to seeing his good friend from Kentucky who he only gets to see during the Snowball retreat.
“We all have our own little group,” Ty Thomas said. “We like it.”