“A year ago tomorrow, I was flying my husband’s coffin home. Today, I am flying out to Texas with other Families who have experienced the same heartache. And that means a lot,” said April Trent with tear-rimmed eyes. 

Trent, a Gold Star wife from Fort Bragg and former active-duty Soldier, has experienced more than her share of heartache, but this Christmas, she had someone to share it with. 

On Dec. 12, 180 Gold Star Families joined Trent at Fayetteville Regional Airport. Army, Air Force, and Marine Families from the eastern North Carolina area and congregated in the terminal to fly to Fort Worth, Texas, for an all-expenses paid weekend of fun and friendship in the Lone Star State.

The Snowball Express began in 2006 with one mission — to bring hope and happy memories to the children and spouses of military heroes who have died on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. 

Seven years later, the program has grown from sponsoring a few hundred Families to bringing Christmas joy to nearly 1,800 Families across the country this year. 

The all-expenses paid, vacation includes a special performance at the LOOK Cinemas, a trip to the Fort Worth Zoo, and a concert by Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band. 

This year, 47 donated flights flew out from 75 cities across the country, with hundreds of employees from American and American Eagle Airlines donating their time to the operation. 

As the Families headed to the boarding line, Patriot Guard Riders lined the terminal walls with flags and cheered them on. “Operation Homefront gives you something else to focus on around the holidays,” said Tanya Palmer, wife of Cpl. Charles Palmer, a Marine from Camp Lejeune, N.C.  who was killed in action in 2007. “Sometimes, it’s all I can do to drag myself out of bed during the Christmas season. You go through so many emotions at this time of year. But every year we’ve had Operation Snowball to help us through. It is our highlight of the holiday season.“ 

Palmer, who has three teenage children, smiles as her younger son walks by sporting reindeer antlers. “The kids have other children to hang out with who understand what they’re going through. And that means the world to me.”

When the Families arrive in Fort Worth, a portion of the highway is shut down between the airport and the hotel to allow them to pass unhindered. “It’s called the walk of gratitude,” said Palmer. “They don’t even shut the highway down for dignitaries, but they do it for us. That’s one stunning way to say thank you.” 

Though there is no way to replace what these Families have lost, the efforts of Operation Snowball Express bring smiles to nearly every face in the terminal. 

“I am so grateful for Operation Snowball,” said Trent. “Thanks to them, the kids and I have people to hang out with who truly understand what we’re going through. I can honestly say, I don’t want to be with anyone else this Christmas.”