TSA agent Brandy Thomas talks to sisters Kelsie and Moira LeGrand at the Salt Lake airport Thursday Dec. 12, 2013. The two girls lost their father Damon in the Iraq war in 2007. They were among 20 children and parents from military families who lost a parent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to fly to Dallas for a one-week vacation on the "Snowball Express" courtesy of American Airlines. (Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune)
TSA agent Brandy Thomas talks to sisters Kelsie and Moira LeGrand at the Salt Lake airport Thursday Dec. 12, 2013. The two girls lost their father Damon in the Iraq war in 2007. They were among 20 children and parents from military families who lost a parent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to fly to Dallas for a one-week vacation on the "Snowball Express" courtesy of American Airlines. (Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Utah military families get free vacation on ‘Snowball Express’

As if they were waiting for Santa Claus, 9-year-old Moira LeGrand and 7-year-old Danika Blamires put their faces inches from the glass and watched fire trucks and other airport emergency vehicles with flashing lights escort a silver American Airlines jet to the terminal.

The girls were among about 20 people from Utah and Idaho, all of whom lost a loved one in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, waiting at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday for a free trip on what the airline calls the Snowball Express. Gold Star families from other cities also are flying to Dallas this week. The Snowball Express program gives the families a few days of vacation in Dallas.

Deborah May, of South Jordan, flew Thursday with her three children, ages 17, 12 and 10. Her husband, Marine Staff Sgt. Donald C. May Jr., died in Iraq in 2003. This is the sixth time May has taken the Snowball Express and says it’s become one of the largest gatherings of war widows and their children. She started crying recalling how the trip allows her to visit with women she communicates with online the rest of the year and gives her children a chance to meet kids like them.

May was 7 1/2 months pregnant with her youngest son when her husband died.

“It just makes you feel like you fit in,” May said. “It makes you feel like you’re not the weird one.”

TSA agents at the Salt Lake City airport sing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to 20 children from military families who lost a parent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. American Airlines paid their way on the "Snowball Express" to Dallas for a week's vacation. (Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune)

TSA agents at the Salt Lake City airport sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to 20 children from military families who lost a parent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. American Airlines paid their way on the “Snowball Express” to Dallas for a week’s vacation. (Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune)

American Airlines tries to keep the planned festivities a secret from the families, but May said previous years have included trips to rodeos, amusement parks and The Nutcracker.

Ashley LeGrand Rawlings, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Moira’s mother, said the fun with families like hers is therapeutic. Rawling’s first husband, Army Cpl. Damon LeGrand, died in Iraq in 2007.

“The counseling is [the children] know all of these kids are the same,” Rawlings said. “They can cry and not be embarrassed.”

Like a military ceremony, the departure had pomp and circumstance. After the emergency vehicles escorted the plane to the terminal, Patriot Guard Riders holding American flags lined the entrance to the gate. They cheered as the families boarded the jet.

TSA agent Jennifer Griggs talks to Cayson Simmons at the Salt Lake airport Thursday Dec. 12, 2013. He lost his father five years ago. He was among 20 children and parents from military families who lost loved one in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to fly to Dallas for a one-week vacation on the "Snowball Express" courtesy of American Airlines. (Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune)

TSA agent Jennifer Griggs talks to Cayson Simmons at the Salt Lake airport Thursday Dec. 12, 2013. He lost his father five years ago. He was among 20 children and parents from military families who lost loved one in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to fly to Dallas for a one-week vacation on the “Snowball Express” courtesy of American Airlines. (Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune)

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