Local News

Families of fallen troops get early present

Posted December 9, 2009 6:01 p.m. EST
Updated December 9, 2009 6:59 p.m. EST

— The holidays can be especially hard for children of service members killed in combat, so one group is providing them with an early gift to help bring some cheer.

The Snowball Express, which started three years ago as a way to provide fun memories for families of fallen troops, landed in Fayetteville on Wednesday, whisking about 130 people off to Dallas for five days.

"(It's good) to be with other families that are just like us, have experienced that same knock that we got," said Shellie Smith, whose husband, Army Lt. Justin Smith, died four years ago in Iraq.

"It's very good for my kids to have friends that understand what life is like every day without their dad," Smith said.

Selina Baez, 11, said she longs to have her father home for Christmas again. Army Spc. Miguel Baez III died in Iraq in February 2008.

“He was awesome. He always played with us every day, and if you were sad or anything, he’ll cheer us up all the time,” said Selina, who wore a shirt with the phrase "In Loving Memory of Our Hero" as she boarded an American Airlines jet for the trip.

The Snowball Express stopped in 23 cities nationwide Wednesday to pick up about 1,300 people for the annual excursion. This year's trip will include visits with the Dallas Cowboys and their cheerleaders, a day at the rodeo and a private performance by award-winning actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band.

"When I come here, it reminds me that people still care and people are still there for us, and people still love my husband and still care for him,” Melissa Mahlenbrock said.

Army Spc. Dave Mahlenbrock was killed five years ago in Iraq. His daughter, Kadence, was 11 weeks old at the time.

"I'm starting to get to a point where I'm understanding – starting to accept – and then I have to explain to her how come he's not here for her birthday and how come he's not here for Christmas," Mahlenbrock said.

Kadence hugged a doll with her father's face as she waited for the Snowball Express jet.

"He fights bad guys and he died, and now he's in heaven," she said when asked about her father.

The group will return to Fayetteville on Sunday.