Families of fallen soldiers travel to Disneyland

Posted December 16, 2008 1:14 p.m. EST
Updated December 17, 2008 11:54 a.m. EST

— More than 100 people from Fayetteville are traveling Tuesday on an all-expense-paid trip to Disneyland.
Chartered American Airlines planes, dubbed the Snowball Express, are picking up hundreds of families across the country for the four-day trip, which is for the children of service members who have died in combat since Sept. 11, 2001.

For the past three years, American Airlines has flown families for the free trip. The trip's biggest contributor is the Ladies Auxiliary VFW. Hilton Anaheim will provide lodging for the families for free. BP has joined the event this year by donating fuel for the planes.

Two chartered flights arriving from other military communities in Norfolk, Va. and Pensacola, Fla. were to stop in Fayetteville to pick up about 130 parents and children.

“Last year was our first Snowball. It was the first time I saw my girls smile again,” Teresa Priestner said while waiting with her daughters, Megan and Breanne, to catch one of the chartered flights at the Fayetteville Regional Airport.

Both of Priestner's daughters wear special dog tags honoring their father, Army Chief Warrant Officer John R. Priestner, of Sanford, who died in 2006 after his helicopter crashed in Iraq, according to the Arlington National Cemetery.

For Breanne Priestner, 16, the trip to Disneyland was a way to connect with others going through the loss of a loved one.

"I can have fun. I don't have to explain anything. Life, if I get sad or just feel down, they know what I'm feeling," Breanne Priestner said.

Darcy Siebert’s husband Capt. Todd M. Siebert died in early 2007 after a mortar blast in Iraq.

While waiting to board the Snowball Express, Siebert wore a shirt with her husband’s photo on it. She said the trip gave her and her family a chance to “have fun and stop thinking about the day to day.”

Nationally American Airlines chartered flights for 20 cities to carry 1,400 people to Disneyland. Families will also visit Universal Studios. They are expected to return on Saturday.