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Qiling Wang, Deseret News
John "Jack" May, 17, kisses Annie, a therapy dog, during the annual Snowball Express, an event for children and spouses of fallen military heroes, at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. Twelve American Airlines charter flights departed numerous cities — including Salt Lake City — to pick up nearly 1,700 children and spouses for a holiday retreat at Disney World in Orlando.

SALT LAKE CITY — Six-year-old Shepard Smith could hardly contain his excitement Saturday as he waited at the airport to board the annual "Snowball Express" flight for the children of fallen soldiers for the first time.

"I'm here because I'm going to Disney World," he explained. "It's awesome."

His mother, Jennifer, said she didn't want Shepard or his younger sister, Amelia, dwelling on the sadness of losing their father, Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lee Smith, during a tour of duty in Iraq.

"We don't have a lot of expectations. It's been wonderful to have something to look forward to. It's just been a year since my husband died," Jennifer Smith said as her daughter eyed the candy being handed out at the festive airport gate.

Smith said her children understand "to an extent" why they were joining other families from the Rocky Mountain region on a charter flight to Orlando, but she was careful not to stress it was because of their father.

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Johnny Alley, 10, talks to Santa during the annual Snowball Express, an event for children and spouses of fallen military heroes, at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. Twelve American Airlines charter flights departed numerous cities — including Salt Lake City — to pick up nearly 1,700 children and spouses for a holiday retreat at Disney World in Orlando.

Being surrounded by others in the same situation for five days at the Florida theme park should "bring a sense of relief," especially to Shepard, who faces questions from his school classmates about his father, she said.

"It's like a very exclusive club," Smith said, looking around at the other families also gathered for the flight. "When you lose someone in the military, you become like a second family with the people who have also lost someone."

Before the flight boarded, she was among the Snowball Express passengers who joined in a Malialole dance performance at the gate. Smith attempted the Polynesian moves with Amelia wrapped tightly around her legs.

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Jennifer Smith, right, dances with the performers during the annual Snowball Express, an event for children and spouses of fallen military heroes, at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. Twelve American Airlines charter flights departed numerous cities — including Salt Lake City — to pick up nearly 1,700 children and spouses for a holiday retreat at Disney World in Orlando.

An announcement at the American Airlines gate about the flight drew cheers from passengers headed to other destinations, although it was hard for anyone to miss that there was something special happening.

There dancers and drummers, volunteers, therapy dogs, Santa Claus, and dozens of military personnel in dress uniform all circulating among the families amid Christmas trees and other decorations set up at the gate.

Edward Felleson, an Air Force Association volunteer, said this is the 13th year the Snowball Express has departed from Salt Lake City. This year, free trips are being provided to more than 1,700 children and their guardians from 87 cities worldwide.

The Snowball Express program is now part of the Gary Sinise Foundation, a nonprofit started by the actor to assist veterans and first responders along with their families.

"What's really, really good about this is a child who's gone through the drama can connect," Felleson said. For "Gold Star" children, he said, the trip shows that "even if they've lost a parent, they're still part of the family."

Jack May, 17, of South Jordan, said he's been taking Snowball Express trips since he was 5 years old. His father, Marine Staff Sgt. Donald C. May, Jr., was killed en route to Baghdad in 2003.

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Service members salute as an American Airlines plane is backed out prior to takeoff during the annual Snowball Express, an event for children and spouses of fallen military heroes, at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. Twelve American Airline charter flights departed numerous cities — including Salt Lake City — to pick up nearly 1,700 children and spouses for a holiday retreat at Disney World in Orlando.

"It's great because I can use the words 'Gold Star' in a conversation and people won't look at me just so confused. They understand," May said. "This is my crew. We get each other."

His mother, Deborah, said she looks forward to the trips.

"The holidays are kind of hard sometimes, too. So this kind of re-groups us and we're able to get through the holidays. We get lots of hugs when we go, we get lots of love. We get to see widows and kids we haven't seen for a while."

Brandi Law of Farmington, there with her 5-year-old son Braxton, teared up as she waited to get on the plane.

"Right now, it just feels emotional, very overwhelming, with the number of people who are here … to know we're not alone," Law said. For Braxton, she said, it's an opportunity "to know he's not the only kid that has to go through this."

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski came with her son, Archie, to hand out commemorative city Veterans Day coins on the plane. She said she was there because of the recent death of Utah Army National Guard Maj. Brent Taylor.

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Service members and volunteers wave at the plane as an American Airlines plane is backed out prior to takeoff during the annual Snowball Express, an event for children and spouses of fallen military heroes, at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. Twelve American Airlines charter flights departed numerous cities — including Salt Lake City — to pick up nearly 1,700 children and spouses for a holiday retreat at Disney World in Orlando.

Taylor, the mayor of North Ogden, was shot and killed Nov. 3 by Afghan commandos at a base in Kabul where foreign troops were training Afghan forces, leaving behind a wife and seven young children.

"It's hard. Mayor Taylor was a friend of mine so I found out about this and came out," Biskupski said. "This means something different now for me. It's the first time I've actually known someone" killed in action.

She said it was too soon after Taylor's death for his children, who range in age from 11 months to 13 years old, to participate in the program, but "maybe they'll be here next year."

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Utah Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 3 Cameron Landies, who served in Afghanistan, said he was there to show the program's participants that "even though their parent is no longer with them, we still are."

He said as a father himself, "I would hope that should anything ever happen to me, that all these people, all my friends, would be here to support my family after I pass."

Landies and other military personnel handed out teddy bears and then assembled in formation on the tarmac to solemnly salute the families aboard as the plane headed to the runway, led by a police car and airport trucks with sirens blaring.