CHARLOTTE, NC (FOX 46 WJZY) - For some this is their very first time aboard the American Airlines’ Snowball Express.
“This is my first time going to ‘Snowball’ and my friend Zoe told me about it and I think it’s going to be fun,” said Bella Smithley.
It's a special trip, and for some who are turning 18 this year, it’s their last.
“Just the support is tremendous and it makes us feel really good that people still remember the sacrifice,” said Rachelle Idol.
All of the passengers have something in common: They’ve all lost a loved one - a mother, father, husband or wife - who died while serving their country.
“I was actually pregnant at the time he was killed. He was a tanker and he was killed in Iraq in 2008,” said Rachelle Idol.
“He was a medic in the Army for 10 years. I miss him a lot every day. Still getting used to the fact that he’s not here,” said Roxanne Mazur.
“He was a major in the Marines. He was enlisted for eight years. Decided to get out, get a degree and go back. Right before he was going to retire, he got cancer,” said Michaela Reyes.
American Airlines and the Snowball Express are rolling out the red carpet. It's their way of saying thank you to these Gold Star Families.
“It means a lot to the children during the holiday season because they miss their dad. We’re just grateful that everybody cares so much about the children,” said Stacy, who asked not to share her last name.
A chance to make new memories and have a lot of fun with people who understand each other.
“It feels healing. It feels nice to talk with somebody who understands how you feel,” said Maximus Mazur.
We left Charlotte for Fayetteville early Saturday morning where even more families joined the flight.
“This is Viviana; she didn’t know she was going to Snowball until early this morning. Are you excited to go?" mom Michaela Reyes asked her daughter.
"Yeah. It’s going to be fun,” said Viviana. It was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had on an airplane.
“We sang Christmas carols and drank hot chocolate,” said Maximus Mazur, but that was just the beginning.
“I think I’m looking forward to their reaction of the kids when they’re doing these activities and being around other kids just like them,” Michaela said.
“I’m looking forward to cowboy night and Damion if you’re watching, hi! That’s my counselor from last time,” said Gavin Smithley.
When we arrived in Dallas, the welcome was overwhelming. Countless people - military and non-military - cheered on the children and spouses.
Even Gary Sinise who played Lieutenant Dan in "Forrest Gump" thanked the families for their sacrifice. He’s been a major part of the Snowball Express and plays a concert for the kids every year.
“I’ve watched some of these kids grow up over the last 10 years right in front of my eyes. They wear the t-shirts with their mother or father they lost, t-shirts with pictures, buttons of their loved ones they lost," Sinise said.
It's an experience he says has been both moving and humbling.
"It’s very rewarding to see them enjoying themselves, forgetting everything, and getting down and partying with the band,” he said.