KILLEEN — The annual Snowball Express took off at the Killen-Fort Hood Regional Airport early Saturday morning to send Gold Star families from surrounding areas on a five-day long retreat to Disney World.

Over 1,700 family members of fallen soldiers who have died on active duty since 9/11 were able to participate in this year’s event, to unite in Orlando, Florida, from all over the world.

The program is put on by the Gary Sinise Foundation and American Airlines and started in 2006 with a letter written by a fallen soldier to his wife.

She was instructed to only open the letter should he die in battle. While the letter expressed many things, one wish was for his family to visit Disneyland.

Since then, Snowball Express brings families of fallen heroes together for a healing retreat at Walt Disney World Resort.

Retired Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, a former III Corps and Fort Hood commander, visited the event with his wife Sarah Lynch. The couple have been ambassadors for the Gary Sinise Foundation since he left the military in 2012.

“This is personal to us,” said Rick Lynch, who was also part of the Army Survivor Outreach Service Program during his active duty career.

Sarah Lynch, who lost her father at the age of 12, understands the pain participating children have to go through.

“Even today it still hurts,” she said.

The Gary Sinise Foundation wants family members to know that the community continues to support them while they go through their grieving, which can be especially difficult during the holidays.

“They will never get over it,” said Rick Lynch. “It’s with them for the rest of their lives; so what this is, it shows them that we don’t forget … As a nation, we are not letting that happen.”

Rick Lynch read a letter sent from Gary Sinise directed toward the Gold Star families, which said that “this trip is … a message of gratitude and remembrance that you and your family are special, you are important, you are loved.”

It also reminded the community that “too often we can take for granted the fact that our freedom must be fought for, sacrificed for and is provided through the service of the brave and courageous few.”

To honor the family members that stand behind those few, American Airlines donated over a dozen charter flights with all-volunteer crews making stops in 22 cities across the country and international stops including Guam, London and Germany.

American Airlines employee Girlanda Arrieta and her crew looks forward to Snowball Express every year.

“It’s very touching and emotional,” she said. “It’s something that we feel fulfilling — to help these families … that are going through a real bad time.”

Arrieta has been part of the Snowball Express for over a decade and enjoys seeing participating children create bonds with each other while they grow up.

“They are able to talk about their emotions with them … they are not alone and they know there are more people like them out there,” she said.

Besides peer support, the annual retreat also offers therapeutic and inspiring programs including counseling, mentoring and assistance with medical, educational and financial benefits.

Counselors of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors met the family members in Killeen to accompany them during their trip to Orlando and their time in Disney World.

“We are providing grief work for the families while we are down there,” said TAPS group leader John Mark Kirkendall.

No matter where the families may be in their grieving process, Snowball Express aims to provide a memorable experience.

“We help all the families whether it’s their first year or whether it has been a while,” he said.

Finding a connection with peers that understand their pain can be especially helpful for grieving children.

“The general public just doesn’t understand, so for them being around like-minded kids that have been through the same situation, it helps them and they prosper,” Kirkendall said.

Before departing Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport, families were able to enjoy food and refreshments as well as Christmas crafts and face painting.

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