Photo of Major General Lester Simpson and child
Maj. Gen. Lester Simpson, 36th Infantry Division commander, chats with Jason Thomas in the overhead baggage compartment during a charter flight from Fort Hood. Jason is the son of Staff Sgt. Ryan J. Thomas, who died while serving in the U.S. Air Force. The flight is part of the Snowball Express, a non-profit organization that brings the families of fallen members of the military to the Dallas/Fort Worth area each December. Each of the nine American Airlines charter aircraft were decorated for the mission and the standard in-flight rules were somewhat relaxed for the kids. (36th Infantry Division photo by Maj. Randy Stillinger/Released)

FORT WORTH, Texas – Family members of service members boarded a special flight Thursday with an important mission: provide hope and new happy memories to the children of military fallen heroes who have died on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.

Several family members of 36th Infantry Division Soldiers were among the special “VIPs” that participated in this year’s Snowball Express, which brought over 1,600 to Fort Worth for this annual event.

Maj. Gen. Lester Simpson, commander of the 36th ID, boarded one of nine American Airlines charter planes at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. In San Antonio, the charter plane, which was decorated in Christmas lights and garland, picked up the family of Sgt. Christopher Loza, who died in 2009 while serving with the 1-124th Cavalry Regiment in Iraq.

Upon arrival in San Antonio, Simpson greeted Amelia Gonzalez, the mother of Sgt. Loza, and Iliana Loza, his daughter, in the airport terminal. They then boarded the flight as it continued on to Fort Hood/Killeen before the last leg back to the D/FW airport. 

Simpson, of Rowlett, said, “It’s important to show the kids that they are still part of our military family and ensure they know we haven’t forgotten about them.” 

“It’s an honor to board this flight and be a small part of the Snowball Express, an organization that gives special attention to our Gold Star families while honoring our fallen military heroes,” Simpson said.

During the weekend, the families were treated to a number of different events, including a visit to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, a trip to the Sheriff’s Posse Ranch in Weatherford, the annual talent show featuring the kids themselves, a show by magician David Hira, and a performance by actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band in a hangar at the Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base. Sinise, who is involved in several military causes, regularly supports the Snowball Express and its Gold Star families.

The highlight for many is the traditional Walk of Gratitude, which gives local residents the opportunity to come out, line the streets of Fort Worth, and show their appreciation for the sacrifices of the fallen and their families as the procession goes by. Red, white and blue balloons were then released into the sky by the families with messages to their loved ones. 

Melanie Mason brought three of her four daughters back to Fort Worth for the weekend of fun and remembrance. She is the wife of Staff Sgt. Luke Mason, who died when the helicopter he was on went down in Southern Iraq in September, 2008. 

Staff Sgt. Mason was deployed with 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment, the division’s General Support Aviation Battalion, which is headquartered in Grand Prairie. The family has participated in the Snowball Express each year since the accident that took his life.

Mason, of Springtown, said that her family benefits from Snowball Express as they see that they are not alone in their loss. 

“The girls have made some very close friends over the past few years,” Mason said.

As the Snowball Express travels around the Dallas/Fort Worth area during the weekend, they are escorted by local police and the ever-present Patriot Guard Riders. Citizens line the streets with signs and cheer in a show of support. American flags fly from overpasses and veterans stand at attention to salute the convoy of buses as they pass. 

“I really like when we go places and see people standing along the road waving,” Mason said. “I like knowing they are there for us, and that they are there to honor our heroes.”

Mason’s daughter, Sarah, age 10, said that her favorite experience of the weekend was seeing all the animals at the Fort Worth Zoo. 

American Airlines is the lead sponsor of the Snowball Express as it donates the charter airplanes and airline tickets that bring all the families together. Other sponsors include Neiman Marcus, the Airpower Foundation, Dallas Fan Fares and Armed Forces Insurance, among many others. 

For more information on the Snowball Express, go to www.snowballexpress.org .

Read more: 36th infantry division families board snowball express