Military Life

‘Twas the Flight Before Christmas: Snowball Express, Part One

As the year comes to a close and I sat pondering this, my final American Heroes piece of 2014, I spent some time debating how to make it special. In the past six months we’ve reviewed the lives – and deaths – of an endless stream of courageous men, and for a moment it seemed there was no pinnacle event to mark at the year’s end. And then I realized it’s really quite simple, you see. Today we honor the families of the fallen, the children and spouses left behind when their American Heroes pass from this realm and into the halls of Valhalla.

The Snowball Express

I recently had the honor of attending the Snowball Express in Fort Worth, Texas. I attended the event and spent five days alongside an estimated 1,800 children and surviving parents as they were treated to a holiday weekend of fun including a rodeo, a day at the zoo, a concert with Gary Sinise – the list goes on. The Snowball Express is an organization built entirely around granting those five days of love and friendship to the children of our fallen military heroes; this year it was its 9th year and was held in Forth Worth for the first time, having been in Dallas and California in previous years. Those five days were a whirlwind of emotions: joy, sorrow, laughter, tears; it ran the gamut of feelings, often whiplashing between them with confusing speed, and I am ever so grateful to have been present to experience it all. This is the story of the Snowball Express, 2014.

Twas the flight before Christmas…

And all through the American Airlines plane…The weekend began with charters flown by American Airlines; my weekend began in Nashville, Tennessee, where the hub of those charters is located. In the second year of Snowball, hard-working board members approached American Airlines with a simple request: would they be willing to donate seats on a few flights to Snowball family members? Rather lengthy story short, in the end it wasn’t a few seats that were donated, it was entire airplanes. On the opening day of the Snowball Express, pilots and flight attendants volunteer their time to staff those American Airlines planes and the long day is spent picking kids up from all around the world. Yes, you read that right: world. We didn’t just pick up children from Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Chicago; children were brought to Texas from locations as far away as the Pacific Rim, Guam, and Spain, to name a few. My original plan on that opening day was to fly one charter from Nashville to Dallas/Fort Worth, but we all know how it goes; the best laid plans…

NEW Garmont AR670-1 & AFI 36-2903 Compliant Boot NEW Garmont AR670-1 & AFI 36-2903 Compliant Boot

The Nashville charter was flown by Jim Palmersheim who is both an American Airlines pilot and chairman of the board for Skyball, a fundraiser that takes place in October and directly helps fund Snowball. In the early morning hours immediately prior to our flight the two of us stood off to one side to chat while the kids and their parents poured into the waiting area. But it wasn’t just any waiting area, and it wasn’t just any day at the airport, either.

Upon arrival at the ticket counter, we were greeted with red, white, and blue balloons arranged in an impressive archway complete with a red carpet and American flags on free-standing poles at the red carpet’s entrance. After going through security, which, as always, involved removing my heavy army boots (they always set the metal detectors off) I headed for the Snowball gate, having no idea what to expect. Imagine my shock when I arrived and received a full-frontal Christmas assault on my senses complete with Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, elves – you name it, if it’s part of a traditional Christmas scene, our gate had it. Kids were lining up to have their pictures taken with Santa (an event I myself was dragged into as I attempted to board the plane behind everyone else) and gift bags were being dug through with unbridled glee. It was The Night Before Christmas – or at least The Morning of the Snowball Flight – at the Nashville airport, and it was awesome.

All the children were stirring…

Jim and I stood aside and chatted briefly about his experiences with Snowball; he’d been flying the charters since their first year – 2007 – which was the second year of Snowball. When asked to choose one significant memory from eight years of flights he was hard-pressed to narrow it down, but after a moment he chose two. First he recounted the year he flew the kids to Disneyland: the air traffic controllers are given unique call signs for each flight (ours was Snowball 4), and that year when Jim alerted the tower of his approach they weren’t quite familiar with what Snowball was. He explained, and it was immediately clear the controller was overwhelmed by the significance of the charter’s passengers. Each child represents a lost soldier, a Christmas without dad or mom, a broken heart and shattered dreams. The air traffic controller immediately gave Jim and Snowball 1 special clearance to fly over Disneyland at just 2,000 feet; Jim announced the view over the intercom, and as he circled above the theme park, the excited screams of kids getting their first glimpse of the happiest place on earth filled the cabin. And as we stood in the Nashville airport, seven years later, Jim’s eyes shone with unshed tears as he recalled the joy of that moment, suspended in the air above Disneyland with a plane full of Snowflakes, as the children of the Snowball Express are called.

And they were accompanied by the surviving spouse…

The second memory Jim shared with me that morning was of a young boy by the name of Dakota Givens. Dakota began attending Snowball at its inception, and in 2007, when Jim Palmersheim flew the first Snowball charter for American Airlines, Dakota was just ten years old. He lost his father, PFC Jesse Givens, on May 1, 2003, during OIF. That means Dakota was just five years old at the time of his father’s death and what memories remain are incredibly sacred. In 2007, Dakota spoke seriously to the pilot – a man whose warm, open demeanor was immediately evident even from a distance- and told him what he wanted for Christmas. He didn’t want the latest video game or remote-controlled car; he did not even wish for his father’s return, perhaps understanding the impossibility of such a request. No, Dakota’s wish was more direct, and one whose sentiment I myself wholeheartedly share: “I want people to be proud of my dad like I am,” Dakota told Jim, “because he fought for their freedoms.” (Author’s note: in 2013 Dakota Givens was awarded a scholarship by the 3rd Armored Cav. Reg. in honor of his late father, an unprecedented award. Read about it.

As Jim and I spoke, a teenage boy with cerebral palsy approached us, beaming brightly even as his mother appeared concerned. He’d somehow lost his boarding pass going through security, he told Jim – addressing the older man as though he was an old, dear friend – what should he do? “No need to worry,” Jim reassured the boy, “you’re here, and that’s what matters.” Then, to my surprise, he asked the boy his name; I’d assumed they knew one another by the way the boy had made a beeline for us and directly spoken to Jim, but apparently, my impression was wrong. That’s just the kind of man Jim is, though. He has an open, welcoming countenance, and the kids clearly loved him. Thank you, Jim Palmersheim, for your part in making the Snowball Express a rousing success.

The flags were held aloft by the Color Guard with care…

Kneeling off to one side at the head of the line, having positioned myself for the best possible photographic opportunities, I watched in wonder as something occurred which I had never before witnessed in an airport at a boarding gate. I’d walked to the gate amidst a group of a few dozen soldiers from Fort Campbell, all of whom were there to see the families off, and as the time to board approached they formed a camo-clad wall bordering the line of those waiting to board the plane. But before the children and their surviving parents boarded, a ritual was to be observed: the Color Guard appeared, flags aloft, heads held high, and our national anthem was sung. Right there at gate C10 at the Nashville International Airport, the children and their parents faced the flag, hats removed, respect shown by all, and their voices mingled together to create the most beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner I have ever heard.

In hopes that pride in our nation soon would be there…

Bystanders who had no idea what was going on at gate C10 stopped in their tracks, placed their hands over the hearts, and took a moment to honor our flag. Passengers waiting at adjacent gates rose from their seats, turned towards the colors, and proved they, too, remembered what our nation was founded on. At the Starbucks across from the gate, a group of young men stepped away from what was a rather long line – and they’d been nearly at the front, and lost their places in that long line – to show respect, honor, and gratitude. And I, kneeling in the corner where I’d hurriedly plugged my phone in for a last surge of power prior to boarding, having been up literally all night, draining my phone in the process, I was simply dumbfounded. There at gate C10, at 7am on December 11, 2014, hundreds of Americans did something that surpassed any and all possible holiday wishes: we stood united, for just one moment, in our love of this nation. And that, my friends, that is a Christmas miracle, and my own heart swelled with pride and joy at having stood witness to such an expected moment in such an unlikely place.

And then the moment was over, but the spell had been cast; the Snowball Express would be an event overflowing with love, American pride, and friendships both new and old. And as the Color Guard departed, members of the Patriot Guard Riders joined the active-duty soldiers who waited to wish the Snowball travelers well. Hands were shaken, palms were slapped, and hugs were shared; it was one of those occasions where embracing a stranger was not only natural but expected and desired – and comforting. My mind raced to remember every minute detail, my pen scratched across the pages of a small USPT notebook I’d tucked in my pocket, and my camera captured not just hundreds but thousands of precious moments. These early morning events in a corner of the Nashville International Airport took place thanks to the hard work of countless volunteers and selfless board members, and it was my great honor to bear witness. Sadly, it is the price of admission that weighed on us all and hovered constantly in the background, waiting in the wings of our memories like a macabre stage master: the death of a loved one, a husband, father, mother, or wife, gone forever. And as I watched the children board the waiting Snowball 4 charter, I wondered how any other moment in the coming days could possibly top the flood of patriotism shown at the appearance of our flag. Little did I know the experiences were just beginning, the day was not yet done, and the most amazing Snowball moments were yet to come.

This is the tale of the flight before Christmas, but it is not yet at an end. Coming up next: a closer look at the events and activities of the Snowball Express, 2014.

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.


NEW Garmont AR670-1 & AFI 36-2903 Compliant Boot NEW Garmont AR670-1 & AFI 36-2903 Compliant Boot

Related Articles

Back to top button