Gold Star Families from the greater Fort Hood area joined others from across the country as they boarded a flight to the “Happiest Place on Earth” for the 14th annual Snowball Express.

The Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport transformed into a winter wonderland Saturday as they partnered with the Gary Sinise Foundation and American Airlines to send Gold Star Families – immediate family members of a fallen service member who died while serving in a time of conflict – on an all-expenses paid vacation to Walt Disney World resort in Orlando.

While Christmas is a time for family and traditions, it is also a difficult time for those who have lost a loved one. The annual event is a way to provide the families, who have already sacrificed everything, with a little respite from their everyday lives, to have fun and bond with other families who are facing the same struggles this time of year.

“I want you to know that we in the Army will never forget – will never forget your sacrifice … what you’ve been through,” III Corps Chief of Staff Col. Hank Perry, said. “Although we’ve been through some tragedy, I want you to know I think this is a celebration. You’re going off for Christmas and you’re going to have a great time. That’s what we want for you.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch and his wife Sarah, who serve as ambassadors of the Gary Sinise Foundation, said the event would not be possible without the generous sponsors and volunteers, who help make the event a reality.

“The world’s got talkers and doers,” Lynch said. “American Airlines is a doer – they put their money where their mouth is.”

The airline is one of the foundation’s largest sponsors, picking up children and their parents all across the country and taking them to Orlando. American Airlines transported 1,768 Gold Star Family members from 21 different locations to Orlando on Saturday.

“Some folks say, ‘The loved one was killed in 2006, they should get over it,’” Lynch said. “They’ll never get over it. It’s with them the rest of their lives. This shows them that we remember, we didn’t forget. They have four days of fun and frolic and hopefully the kids will know how much we appreciate them as Americans.”

American Airlines and the Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport provided games, activities, food and fun in the airport terminal, as they awaited their flight. Santa Claus himself was also in attendance, allowing everyone the opportunity to tell him what they wanted for Christmas, before they left on their trip.

“It is not only the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen and Marines who serve, but those family members as well,” Lynch said, reading a personal letter from Sinise to the Gold Star Family members. “Too often, we take for granted that freedom must be fought for, sacrificed for, as provided through the service of the brave and courageous few. The family members we honor today have sacrificed so much in the name of freedom. While we can never truly repay the debt we owe these families, we can try to show each of them our appreciation and gratitude whenever possible, so they will surely know we will never, ever forget.”

Sinise’s message went on to thank everyone who supports the Gary Sinise Foundation through donations and volunteerism. He also promised the families a concert later in the week by the Lt. Dan Band, the band Sinise created in honor of his famous “Forrest Gump” character.

Once onboard the flight to Orlando, the families were greeted by flight attendants dressed as their favorite Disney princesses.

In his concluding statement to the Gold Star Families, Sinise said, “The first rule of Snowball Express is to have fun.”

For more information about the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Snowball Express, visit garysinisefoundation.org/snowball-express.