GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — “We really brought a different atmosphere,” Pfc. Kyle Gipson said, recollecting on the whirlwind five-day trip that he and other single Soldier representatives took to Dallas, TX. “We were the only ones still in the military who could provide families with this special connection to their fallen heroes.”
The four Soldiers — all members of USAG Bavaria Better Opportunity for Single Soldiers — and Special Events Coordinator Tony Frazier were the only international BOSS representatives selected to support Snowball Express, the nation’s largest gathering of Gold Star kids and spouses.
Sgt. Vincent Murray, president of USAG Bavaria BOSS, jumped at Family & MWR’s unexpected invitation.
“After I did a briefing, MWR told me they had this Snowball Express event coming up. They offered it to us, and I immediately said yes. We had less than a two-week notice.”
The annual four-day event in Texas is organized by Snowball Express, a non-profit, volunteer-operated cooperative that serves Gold Star families, or the surviving children and spouses of servicemembers who died on active-duty, since Sept. 11, 2001. This year — the eleventh since the group’s inception in 2006 — was the first time BOSS or any branch of the military participated, Murray said.
Other Soldiers who joined the unprecedented trip included Sgt. Roy Tomlinson, Murray’s counterpart in Hohenfels, 2nd Cavalry Regiment BOSS representative Spc. Shakur Heidelberg and Pfc. Kyle Gipson of 44th Expeditionary Signal Battalion.
The families were chartered “from all over” the U.S. — even as far as Australia — by complimentary American Airline planes with all-volunteer flight crews, Gipson said. “They had the gates decorated, and everything.”
In Dallas, the nearly 2,000 kids and spouses were welcomed by volunteers, while BOSS Soldiers from USAG Bavaria, Fort Bragg, Fort Polk, Fort Hood and Fort Sill served as security and carted luggage from buses to hotel rooms.
Regardless of the location, the events are always a concerted effort among local law enforcement, volunteers and sponsors. Everything is free, including all meals. Police even close highways and escort the more than fifty buses transporting Gold Star families “like some sort of Presidential convoy,” said Gipson.
Kids from previous Express events embraced in the hotel lobbies, the Soldiers said. Many kids build profoundly unique relationships during the four-day December getaway, Snowball Express reports, which help them find hope after the shared experience of tragic, unfathomable loss.
This year’s Snowball Express, which ran from Dec. 11-15, featured a trip to the famous Texas stockyards, rodeo shows, live performances, a medieval times show with jousting and sword fights, all-day gaming at contemporary arcades and giveaways. Previous Express events have also involved sports games and trips to amusement parks.
BOSS Soldiers helped with everything from logistics and security to casual — and sometimes piercingly serious — “Solider support.”
“When we weren’t serving as security or helping volunteers, we walked around, getting to know the families, listening to their stories,” said Murray. But it was the organization’s famous Walk of Gratitude “where you just lost it.”
Kids and spouses received balloons and wrote heartfelt messages to their fallen hero, before releasing the balloons into the sky.
Murray quickly developed a friendship with an eleven year-old girl named Danika whose dad died serving in uniform.
“We were playing bingo, and I was getting crushed. I don’t know if it was because I’m older and my reaction time is slower,” Murray said. “But she walked everywhere with me. At one point, we literally just walked around the entire Hilton. She also gave me a bracelet that I still have that says Best Friend Murray.’”
The event has definitely had an effect on the future of USAG Bavaria BOSS community service involvement, Murray said, adding that events like Snowball Express really “open young Soldiers’ eyes to something bigger than themselves.”
“I want my guys to go to this,” he added, “This trip is going to be my Christmas leave from now on. I’m going to go out to Dallas. I’ll have to pay for my plane ticket and drive there, but I’m going to go, volunteer and continue to build relationships with these families every year.”