Chris Van Horne, NBC 5 Fort Worth Reporter
Families of fallen military heroes arrive in North Texas for 5 days of celebration, holiday events and to remember their loved ones.
It is a gathering unlike any other across the country, and it only happens in North Texas.
Throughout the day on Friday, more than 1,700 children and military spouses arrived at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport as part of the seventh annual Snowball Express, a event for the families of fallen service members.
American Airlines brought in nine charter planes full of families. Others arrived on regular flights, some flying from as far away as Guam, Puerto Rico and Germany.
The loads of planes were greeted with thunderous applause and cheers from dozens of volunteers, American employees, Patriot Guard Riders, military members and even regular travelers.
"It's the least we can do for these kids, for these families who have given so much," said Capt. Jim Palmershem, an American pilot who flew the first flight of the day from Nashville and Arkansas.
The Strattons arrived on a charter from Indianapolis and Washington, D.C. The family of three children and mother, Jennifer, from Stafford, Va., are attending their third Snowball Express.
"The first event we went to, my daughter, Delaney, looked around at all the people and she said, 'They haven't forgotten daddy.'" Jennifer Stratton said. "And I said, 'No they haven't.' This is one of those weekends where it's America at its best. We just love coming to Texas and that Texans remember our fallen heroes."
The Snowball Express isn't just a warm greeting at DFW Airport. The five-day event includes for the first time a day of activities in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
"We do a thing called the 'Walk of Gratitude,' said Dan Ronan, a member of the board of directors of the Dallas-based charity Snowball Express. "And this is a chance for the community to come out and to try and show people how much they appreciate the service and sacrifice these families have made."
"On Sunday morning, about 10:30, we'll kick off with about 2,000 folks that we can cheer on and let them know how much we appreciate them," Palmershem said.
The Syversons from Carlisle, Penn., have attended every Snowball Express after Army Maj. Paul Syverson was killed by a mortar in Balad, Iraq, in 2004. His daughter Amy, who was just 2 months old at the time, said she enjoyed coming to North Texas for the events.
"It's really great to be here with everyone's support," she said. "It's really nice."
Her mother, Jackie, echoed the sentiment.
"It's a cool honor, because holidays are hard in their own way," she said. "And then when the kids get to come here and do something really cool like this and be around other kids who are like them, it works out great. It's just a really cool way to start the holidays, it means a lot to us."
It also means a lot to the volunteers, who spend hours coordinating the massive five-day operation.
Bridget Johnson, an American operations agent, helped decorate a part of Terminal C for the arriving planes. A former military member herself, Johnson said she can't think of a better way to honor the families.
"We didn't pay the ultimate sacrifice, and these families did," she said. "It means a lot for us to be able to give back."
"It's about creating some happy times around Christmas time," Palmershem said. "I'm not sure who gets more out of it, the kids or the volunteers. But we're just so glad to be here and be a part of this and looking forward to a great weekend here in Dallas-Fort Worth."
Jennifer Stratton said she knows her husband would be happy to hear that his family gets a holiday treat away from home and a chance to remember the families that have lost a loved one in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
"He would be happy to know that America doesn't forget their heroes," she said.
The Walk of Gratitude will begin at 10:30 on Sunday along East Exchange Avenue in the Stockyards. The public is encouraged to line North Main Street for the walk. Click here for more information.