main story image for facebook sharing

Around The Fleet

All Aboard The Snowball Express:

Christmas comes early for gold star families

Where is your dad? What does he do? Where does he live?

Navy Photo

These questions are commonplace enough, but for thousands of military children across the country, they're also deeply painful, a reminder that Dad or Mom is never coming home. Such questions can also set Gold Star children apart from friends and classmates, who probably haven't lost a parent to combat, suicide or illness, and who might not know anything about the military at all.

"There's no other children that have lost their father in our school," said Westy Gilbert, widow of Lt. William Gilbert. He committed suicide in May 2012 after returning from back-to-back deployments to Afghanistan and USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77). The Gilbert children, Landon and Liam, are now 8 and 6.

"There are no other parents that have deployed," Gilbert continued. "It's hard on them. Every year when I meet the new teacher, I explain the situation, what happened. That way if there's any questions or if the boys talk about their dad, it's not a shock. ... Fortunately, I've been able to keep them level-headed as far as, this isn't going to define your life. We're always going to have our military family."
Three photo collage depicting events during Snowball Express.

That was especially true last week, when Landon and Liam got to spend time with about a thousand other children just like them. Gold Star and bereaved military family members arrived in Dallas/Fort Worth on the "Snowball Express" - via 11 specially chartered planes - for four days of fun, excitement and bonding.

"This is our tribe," said Gilbert, a Navy veteran herself.

When people ask you, 'Where's your husband?' ... you always feel like you're the Debbie Downer, but everybody knows here. I don't have to explain myself." - Westy Gilbert

"Nobody asks me any questions like that," said Gilbert. "I don't feel like I have to step on broken glass or tiptoe around. It's great for (my kids). It's the same thing. They all know and they're all relatable."

According to Executive Director Buck Kern, Snowball Express was founded in 2006, after newspapers printed a farewell letter from a Soldier killed in Iraq. He begged his wife to keep the promise they had made to their children and take them to Disney World. Volunteers, veterans and corporations decided to help him honor that last promise and hosted his family - and several others - at Disney Land for the weekend. They hosted more the following year, and again the year after that. The Navy Gold Star program came aboard three years ago, and this was Snowball Express' biggest year yet, with 648 families.
Three photo collage of families decorating Christmas trees.

"The holiday season is the toughest time of year for these kids and families," said Kern.

We do all sorts of activities that hopefully inspire the kids, show them they're not alone, show them that the sacrifice of their dad or their mom is special and that it's not forgotten, and make them understand they can be kids again. It's OK to smile and laugh and have fun." - Buck Kern
That started at airports around the country, where the surviving parents and children met similar families who live near them. Then there were huge send-offs, with hugs and comfort animals and even Santa Claus.

"The kids loved going in the air and seeing the clouds. My son was like, 'Daddy's up here.' That was nice in itself," said Takima Roach. Her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Clarence James Roach, a quartermaster for Assault Craft Unit 2 in Little Creek, Virginia, passed away eight days after emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor in August 2015. He left behind a daughter, Cailynn, now 7, and son, Caiden, now 5.

My son often says, 'Daddy's in heaven,' Children who have not experienced that kind of look at him like, 'What do you mean your dad's not here?' He'll say, 'No. I have a dad. He's just in heaven.' My son ... thinks heaven is just down the street. He thinks heaven is like a long deployment." -Takima Roach
Families received a hero's welcome and police escort upon landing in Dallas. The city closed the highways to everyone but the Snowball Express motorcade of about 50 buses, and firefighters and motorists lined overpasses and on ramps to clap and salute.

Activities over the next four days included a parade, a walk of gratitude, a mini rodeo show, concerts by performers like Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band, a barbeque prepared by Chef Robert Irvine on Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, and a special Medieval Times dinner pageant featuring service flags instead of heraldry, which Gilbert and Roach agreed was a favorite event.

Families also bowled, played laser tag, watched a private screening of a yet-to-be-released movie, performed in a talent show many children used to honor their deceased parents, and wrote messages to their fallen on red, white and blue balloons before releasing them to the heavens.
Three photo collage showing balloon release with notes to military mothers and fathers lost.

"Every time we would go to an event, there was a welcoming committee cheering us on, high-fiving the kids, just to make them feel special," said Gilbert. "It's great. ... The only thing that we're missing here is sleep."

Snowball Express also gave parents a break and a chance bond with each other by providing hangout lounges where their kids could talk, dance, run around, build gingerbread houses and gorge on sugar.

"Cailynn and Caiden just love being around the other children," said Roach. "You tend to - not to shelter them ... but you tend to pay more attention and just want to be around them more, so letting them go and be in a room with a bunch of kids who are just like them, who have those same emotions - they're loving it. It's a good way for them to understand what happened. ... It's a good way for them to interact with other children without feeling that weirdness. With my son saying, 'My dad's in heaven,' another kid will say, 'Well, yeah, mine is too.' I think that's a good release for them."

For more information on Snowball Express, click here.