“Remember, sweetheart? This is what they did for Daddy’s funeral,” I overheard a young single mother say to her fatherless son as the Greyhound bus we were on departed from the Dallas Fort Worth Airport…led by a Presidential motorcade of Patriot Guard Riders.
From that one moment, anyone could tell this was no ordinary group I was traveling with. I had the privilege of spending last weekend with the families of Snowball Express. Many of you have heard me talk about this amazing organization and have even seen some of our Snowball families out at the track. But this was an experience like no other.
In total 1,700 kids and parents, all who have lost their parent or spouse in the war since 9/11, gathered in Dallas for an unforgettable weekend of bonding, play, and one-of-a-kind opportunities.
That moment on the bus wasn’t the start of the weekend for me or for the Snowball Express families. It started long back at the Indianapolis International Airport. Nicole and I left the house at some unreasonably early hour, and we were the first ones to arrive at the airport…except for the street-legal two-seater IndyCar, which was set up next to the American Airlines check-in desk. A huge sign welcoming the SBE families and a giant inflatable snowman surrounded the desk along with many yellow ribbons, a sign of a solider who has gone to war.
As the Snowball families arrived at the airport, they were greeted by members of the Indianapolis Patriot Guard Riders who helped the families with their luggage, American Airlines employees who made check-in effortless, the Colts Cheerleaders who posed for pictures, and me – along with a giant car. I had met many of the families at the Brickyard 400 Snowflake Event. The familiar faces were refreshing. Starting a trend for the weekend, I signed hero cards and each of the kids (and the Colts Cheerleaders!) got to sit in the IndyCar.
If you want to experience true VIP treatment, travel with Snowball Express. The Indianapolis International Airport had shut down an entire lane of security for our families, so the kids didn’t have to stand in line. The gate area was a “Winter Wonderland,” jam packed with a remote control race track, two Wii stations, balloon animals, a breakfast buffet, and the big jolly man himself, Santa!
And that doesn’t even include the airplane itself. Our plane was one of nine charter planes provided by American Airlines to get all of our SBE families to Dallas. The inside was covered in tinsel, wreaths, snowflakes and American flags. And the staff? I’m sure they hired all former camp counselors – these guys were crazy! From surfing down the aisle on trays during takeoff, to wrapping me entirely in gift wrap, to putting kids in the overhead bins, we had way more fun than should be allowed on any flight. The party started on that flight, and it didn’t stop until we left four days later.
Our arrival in Dallas brought tears to my eyes. When we stepped out of the walkway, a tunnel of people five deep on either side greeted us, cheering for our amazing SBE families. “Thank you” and “Merry Christmas” shouts were coming at us from all directions. The kids got high-fives from the DFW staff and the Mavs Maniacs, and a huge high school brass band was there playing Christmas songs while the Coca-Cola Polar Bear took pictures with the kids. What amazed me about this “hero’s welcome” is how much respect and honor each person gave these families. In a world where we hear about military funeral protests, watching these hundreds of people give their thanks was inspiring. It definitely refreshed my hope in humanity.
We all boarded the Greyhound busses, our luggage having already been taken care of, and were escorted out of the airport and to our hotel by the North Dallas Patriot Guard Riders in the most impressive display of patriotism. That was when I overheard that one mother, reminding her son of the most important man in their lives.
Snowball Express, while it is a complete VIP treatment for the families, was not created with the intent of simply being a vacation. It was created to be a place where families who have this one unique commonality can bond and know they’re not the only ones. It was created so that these families would know how much of a hero their loved one is, and that we thank them for their sacrifice. And it was created so that these families could foster the memories of their loved one, and to make it okay to create new memories.
Snowball Express’ mission statement is “to create hope and new memories for the children of our fallen military heroes who have died while serving our country since 9/11.” As simple as it sounds, creating new memories is incredibly difficult for our Snowball Express kids. There’s a fear there, wondering if they will forget their father if they start filling their head with new and wonderful experiences that don’t include him. That fear holds them back from getting the most out of life. The SBE weekend provides a safe place for those new memories to be cultured, surrounded by people who are in the exact same boat.
And what memories did they make! After the Walk of Gratitude down the people-lined streets of downtown Dallas, the families were treated to a star-studded opening ceremony (including my own lovely girlfriend, Nicole, singing the National Anthem). The World Champion Dallas Mavericks, Sir Earl Toon of Kool and the Gang, a Medal of Honor Recipient, a ventriloquist, a National Football Hall of Fame Inductee, a magician, and even the Snowball Express IndyCar made an appearance. They were given full reign in Six Flags over Texas, a personal show at the Mesquite Rodeo, a carnival and concert by Gary Sinise and the Lieutenant Dan Band at Gilley’s, and a private show by Terry Fator.
The star-power behind this organization was incredible, each of them thanking the families for all they have done. I spoke those same words at the Opening Ceremonies, about how we appreciate their sacrifice and how inspiring each of them is. Having met several families through the Snowflake Events I had done, the words I spoke were true, but it wasn’t until Monday night that I understood the enormity of the sacrifice.
Monday was the only night I wasn’t standing by my car to sign autographs, as it had been packed up for its next destination. Team Plowey and I had gotten through all 1,700 peoplein the four days the car was in Dallas, and Nicole and I finally had a chance to rest. We opted to spend our last night in Dallas in the “Adult Lounge,” a place where the moms and dads (yes, there were dads there, too) could relax with a glass of wine and their SBE friends.
We spent some time talking to several parents about their experiences traveling the world to several bases and about their time here at SBE. After several hours, the full room dwindled down to just a few of us in a circle singing songs with a guitarist. “I Am A Soldier’s Daughter,” by the talented Corinne Chapman, had me with a lump in my throat. The powerful lyrics combined with our harmonies quieted the room. A few moments of silence passed, and I heard, “Am I the only one who is just so mad at him for leaving my kids?”
Never before I had thought about that possible emotion. I spent my entire weekend focused on the kids, making sure that they had the smiles put back on their faces. But I hadn’t even stopped to think about what it must be like to be the widow or widower of a fallen military hero. What happened next solidified what this weekend was about for these families.
Immediately, the other women verbally lifted her up. “Absolutely not. That’s a perfectly normal emotion to go through.” “I thought the exact same thing. It took me a while, but I finally got through the anger.” “He didn’t mean to leave you, and he didn’t know that his promises to return were going to hurt so much.” That woman took a huge risk throwing such a powerful emotion on the table, but that’s what it’s all about – working through the pain and confiding in the people who have been through this. You are not alone.
The toll these families take are unreal. While many kids adjust quickly and healthily, many others hold so much resentment toward the world. They’re mad at their dad for saying he’d come back, that he’d never leave them. They’re mad at their moms for letting him serve. They’re mad at the military for taking him. They’re mad at the United States for being in a war in the first place. These kids are just mad at the world, and that anger can take a toll on them…and the parents who now have to comfort and raise their kids while grieving the loss of their best friend and spouse.
I am so blessed to get to be a part of the recovery and memory-building process. Most of my involvement in the SBE weekend was spent standing by the car, signing hero cards, and putting every kid (and adult!) who wanted to into the car. It may seem like a simple thing to do, but you never know what effect something simple will have on a kid. Nicole relayed a story to me about a six-year-old I got to meet. When I put him in the SBE IndyCar, his face just lit up and you could hear him making engine noises and steering the wheel. The TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) counselor who was standing next to Nicole got her attention and said, “He’s smiling! He never smiles.”
Many of the parents asked me if I ever got tired of doing the same thing over and over – meet kid, smile for picture, do autograph, put kid in car, smile again for picture, lift kid out of car, repeat. I always said that while I may be repeating what I did for the 900th time, for that kid, it’s the only chance he gets to sit in a race car and interact with me. It’s up to me to make that one moment special for him. And you never know what’s going to get these kids to open up, to smile again. For some, it’s just a race car, and that’s cool. But for others, it’s the only thing they smiled about this month. That’s why I stood by my car for three days of events, four hours at a time, until every person who wanted to meet me did. You never know what impact you had.
If I’m going to be honest, I get frustrated with the Christmas season. Every year it seems that the holiday is ever more processed and over-commercialized. The “Magic of Christmas” for me seems to have been dwindling since I was a kid. And on top of this, the recent events in Las Vegas put an even bigger damper on my holiday season. I guess you could say I was one “Bah humbug” short of being a scrooge.
This past weekend in Dallas completely flipped that around. If you want to see the “Spirit of Christmas,” look to the corporations and people who gave countless man-hours and thousands of dollars to give our SBE families the time of their lives. From American Airlines flights, to all of the hotel rooms in the Sheraton Dallas, to the Greyhound and Dallas County Schools busses, to the Patriot Guard, to the caterers, to the Snowball Express Board of Directors who make this their “second full-time job,” seeing the over-abundance of giving snapped me out of my slump.
Nowhere else could you find a group that exemplifies the true meaning of the holiday season more than the Snowball Express group that joined us in Dallas last weekend. Thank you to the families, not just for your day-to-day sacrifice, but for reminding me of the true spirit of Christmas.