Snowball Express flies out of El Paso

Children keep busy at the El Paso International Airport Saturday during a farewell event for families traveling to Dallas on the Snowball Express. Photos by Sgt. Kelsey Miller, 1st BCT, 1st AD Public Affairs.

Children keep busy at the El Paso International Airport Saturday during a farewell event for families traveling to Dallas on the Snowball Express. Photos by Sgt. Kelsey Miller, 1st BCT, 1st AD Public Affairs.

By Sgt. Kelsey Miller, 1st BCT, 1st AD Public Affairs:

(El Paso, Texas, Dec. 14, 2017)

For a unique and very special group of people, the holidays kicked off a little early this year. Gold Star families from Fort Bliss and surrounding areas boarded the Snowball Express and were whisked away Saturday to a Dallas getaway created especially for them.

“The Snowball Express was established to provide a special holiday trip, as well as a healing experience for children whose parent died while serving in the military after Sept. 11, 2001,” said Darin Anthes, the general manager of American Airlines in El Paso. “The holiday season will be difficult for many families, particularly those who have recently lost a parent or spouse.”

Santa Claus hugs a child at the El Paso International Airport Saturday during a farewell event for families traveling to Dallas on the Snowball Express.

On this particular day, the Gold Star families met at the El Paso International Airport in preparation for their American Airlines flight to Dallas. Soldiers and members from local veteran organizations holding American flags lined the hallway leading to the main room where the families waited to board their flight. As they walked through, those holding the flags snapped to the position of attention as a sign of respect for the service and sacrifices of the families.

Upon entering the room, the 1st Armored Division Band, playing popular holiday tunes, greeted the children. They also encountered a smiling, balloon-animal making clown, Darth Vader and his Storm Troopers, Soldiers and later, Santa Claus. The families were provided with a light breakfast, beverages and the opportunity to socialize with one another. Table games and a face painting station were set up for the children.

“My husband passed away in February of 2013, and we found out about Snowball Express,” said Kori Poor, a Gold Star spouse. “We’ve been coming for about four years now. It really just puts my kids in the holiday frame of mind during the hardest time of the year. I saw my kids smile for the first time around Christmas at their first Snowball Express trip. It’s an amazing program. What they do for these kids, nobody will ever understand. It’s heartwarming to come here.”

Gold Star families of Fort Bliss and surrounding areas meet at the El Paso International Airport in preparation for their American Airlines flight to Dallas Saturday on the Snowball Express.

This year, more than 1,600 children and parents from across the nation and overseas will meet in Dallas for five fun-filled days. The schedule includes a Walk of Gratitude honoring their sacrifice, a night of jousting fun at Medieval Times and a private concert by Academy Award nominated actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band.

“I just want to say, on behalf of the commanding general of Fort Bliss, who couldn’t make it here today because he is in Iraq, that this event is important,” said Lt. Col. Paul Stewart, the executive officer for the Fort Bliss Garrison. “As a military, we never want to forget our fallen, and we never do. There is a foundation that keeps everything steady and for a Soldier, part of that foundation is their family. We want to take the time to thank the Snowball Express for putting something like this together so that we don’t forget the fallen, and we don’t forget their families. The families remain, and we love you.”