A special departure called "The Snowball Express" took place Saturday morning to honor the children and spouses of fallen U.S. military heroes. American Airlines flew 16 St. Louis families on an all-expense paid trip to Dallas to join 1,600 other families to celebrate the holiday together.
The goal of the Snowball Express is to help these families heal from the grief of loss, by having fun and connecting with other people who can share in the same experience and help each other heal.
All participating families showed up to the American Airline gate around 7:30 a.m. to check in. You couldn't miss it because it was covered in balloons and decorative snowmen. There was a send-off crew, including the Freedom Riders, Patriot Guard and Alton High School ROTC, to welcome to these special travelers.
This year marks Joshua Traxel's 3rd year riding the "Snowball Express." He lost his father back in 2012 when he was serving a humanitarian mission in Guatemala. "I have my mother, but it's still different without my father there. It's definitely saddening," said Traxel. Each year Traxel meets new friends that he stays in touch with and visits year-round. "This kind of gives us a way to connect with other kids that have gone through the same experience so it's not quite as lonely," said Traxel.
Alnite Smiley lost her husband 6 years ago after he served with the U.S. Army. They have two girls together. "It's another year without my husband, another day, another event, and it doesn't really hit me until something big comes up and I think wow...this is our 6th Christmas," said Smiley.
It was hard for Smiley to find someone to talk to about her grief for many years. Her husband committed suicide after serving a tour. "People don't understand, death and suicide are really hard to comprehend and there's really like no closure, so to meet somebody who kind of went through the same things makes it easier to talk to and i can kind of process things better," said Smiley.
American Airlines goes all out with Santa and Mrs. Clause, a decorated terminal and a party to help families take their minds off their grieving. "The networking that occurs on this helps them move forward on their own," said Mark Dunlop, who works with these kids year-round through Survivor Outreach Services.
The Snowball Express goes to nearly 30 cities to pick up military families. The one that came to St. Louis traveled from Chicago first. After St. Louis, it will travel to Seattle and Dallas. Once all the special guests arrive in Dallas, there will be a ceremony to honor the fallen U.S. soldiers, a jousting night at Medieval Times and a private concert.