The Snowball Express Foundation: Showing Love to Children of Fallen Military Members

He was riding in the car with his mom when the tears began to fall. Concerned, she asked what was wrong, and 10-year-old Braydon Nichols, still crying, asked when his Dad was coming home so they could go camping. “Soon,” she assured him, “Your dad is off fighting for this country.” Braydon nodded in understanding, but said as soon as his dad got back, they were going camping – “just me and him.”

One week later, Army Chief Warrant Officer Bryan Nichols was killed in action.

Braydon Nichols with his father, Army Chief Warrant Officer Bryan Nichols.
Braydon Nichols with his father, Army Chief Warrant Officer Bryan Nichols.

It happened on August 6, 2011, a date that rings an infamous bell for those in the Navy SEAL community. That’s the day dozens of our men were killed in Afghanistan when an RPG took down their Chinook. Many of them were fathers; that’s the day of Extortion 17. And among them was Bryan Nichols, a pilot who was present as one of the three crew members. Nichols did multiple tours; his lifelong dream had been to join the Army, and he did. And when he was killed, little Braydon Nichols was left with a gaping hole in his heart.

Braydon’s mom, Jessica, remembers every detail of the days following Bryan’s death. Sitting on their living room couch cradling her sobbing son, this time unable to reassure him his father would come home to go camping. Braydon’s desire to see his father as other men were being remembered in the news and online, which led to her helping him put together an iReport post about his father on CNN.com. It went viral. Days later, when she couldn’t find him and frantically searched the house, only to find him on the floor of a closet, crying, looking at pictures of his dad. He says he wants people to remember his dad as not just a soldier, but as a dad. To Braydon Nichols, Bryan Nichols is everything: soldier, pilot, hero – but most of all, his dad.

Children who lose a parent in combat go through a kind of deep, torturous pain few can comprehend. The kind of pain that lingers not for days or months, but for years. For a lifetime. Finding the silver lining in the cloud of death is not only monumentally difficult but almost impossible, and they and their surviving parent have long, heartbroken roads ahead of them. If you could give them something to smile about, would you?

The men and women behind The Snowball Express Foundation put their hearts and souls into giving the children of fallen warriors something to smile about. Snowball Express is a 501(c)3 organization headquartered in Texas. Every year Snowball brings those children together for a memorable five days of fun through activities and shared events and experiences. This year will be their 9th; Snowball will be taking place in Fort Worth, Texas, from December 11th to 15th, 2014. Events include trips to Six Flags and sporting events, among many, many others. And this event is entirely free for the children and their surviving parent to attend.

Snowball is put on for children with a parent who was killed while on active duty on or after September 11, 2001, and who are between 5 and 18 years old. Deaths can be either combat or non-combat related; if a child has suffered the loss of an active-duty military parent, they are welcomed with open arms. (For attendance-related FAQ’s, go to http://snowballexpress.org/families/faqs-downloads/.)

Events are not only memorable but provide the platform for lifelong friendships and life-changing relationships. There are children who attend every year, meeting up with their Snowball friends, taking the rare opportunity to spend time with others their own age who know from personal experience just what they’re going through. And then there are those who will attend for the first time and most likely be amazed by the camaraderie and love they’re enveloped in. Snowball isn’t just an event, it’s an Experience, and one that no child of a fallen service member should miss. So how do they get there?

AA SnowballAmazingly, free transportation is now provided by American Airlines. The major airline provides flights via charters and scheduled flights, flying to major hubs all across the country to pick up the children and their living parents. When Snowball ends, they fly them home. All this is at no charge whatsoever to the families and it’s something Snowball coordinators had to make happen. Their hard work and tireless dedication has turned Snowball into an experience no one forgets; a rare opportunity where families who have gone through immense pain are given a chance to let go, relax, and, yes, shed a few years, along with thousands of others who truly understand where they’re coming from.

Gary Sinise SnowballMajor sponsors include the Gary Sinise Foundation; Gary Sinise has become well known for his outspoken support of the military, and it isn’t just financial. Sinise has spent more than a little personal time with the children at Snowball, playing his guitar, goofing off, and giving them the kind of upbeat support they need. Financial supporters include the Dr. Pepper Group, Albertsons, Edy’s/Nestle, Kodak, and Six Flags, among others. And if you’re curious why I’m listing a few supporters, it’s for a reason: the companies that offer support to families of service members are companies that deserve our patronage.

This year’s Snowball event isn’t going to be small by any means. Word is somewhere around 2,000 children will be attending – yes, you read that right. That means the convoy of buses traveling from event to event will stretch between 40 and 45 buses long, if not more, each bus packed with families who have lost a beloved soldier, sailor, Marine, or airman. Keeping an eye on the convoy will be members of the Patriot Guard Riders and volunteers aplenty. If you’re having trouble envisioning a 45-busy convoy making its way through Texas and the resulting tidal wave of smiling faces rushing the front gate at Six Flags, that makes two of us; it’s going to be phenomenal.

So, what can you do to help? I’m glad you asked. Snowball is in countdown mode; there’s not even a month left until the event, and they still need donations. They run entirely on donations and hard-working volunteers, and there’s still a fairly large chunk needed to ensure every child can make it. Donations can be made at: http://snowballexpress.givezooks.com/events/2014-sponsor-a-child/. If for some reason you’re unable to make a donation before this year’s event, don’t worry. Donations are always needed, because it takes a lot to get a couple thousand children gathered in Texas for five days of fun. Every penny helps, and if it comes too late for the 2014 event, it’ll go to 2015’s. Volunteers are also needed.

SnowballChildren like Braydon Nichols need an event like Snowball. If you doubt it for a moment, consider the words of these moms: Jennifer, who attended with her 8-year-old daughter 5 months after the death of her husband, said “it was the first time since losing my husband that I went 5 days in a row without crying.” It was also, she added, “5 days of feeling a bit more normal in the most abnormal year of my life.”

Kelly talked about her son, who had all but stopped talking after his father’s death: “but he did at [Snowball Express], he got to meet some kids in his age and talk about it, and that eased my heart.” And Jessica, who said the first time her son every met another child who had lost a parent in the military was at Snowball: “My son later told me that he felt safe being with kids who didn’t know their dads either.” Patty mentioned the family atmosphere, adding that Snowball is “the only place on earth where talk of our loved ones and their final resting place involves pride, tears, and hysterical laughter all at once.”

Snowball is truly a life-changing event. It provides a window of normalcy where pain is understood and accepted, and tears turn to laughter on a regular basis. The volunteers who make Snowball happen are an exceptional group of people; many are veterans themselves and see this as a chance to do their part taking care of the families of their fallen brothers.

To those who support Snowball in so many ways, thank you. And to the fallen, you are not forgotten. The torch burns bright in your memory every moment of every day, and at this year’s Snowball, your memories will glow with the warmth of love as children and surviving parents come together for 5 days of laughter, love, and tears, all rolled into one. Old friends will be reunited, new friends will be made; bonds will be forged. And, above all, we remember. And we will never forget.

Author’s Note: Visit Snowball’s site at http://snowballexpress.org/. It’s bound to be an experience of emotional ups and downs, and it’s guaranteed to be life-changing.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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