Given the growing hassle over flying commercial, we might all want to sign up with Col. Chris Buescher on his next all-volunteer "Snowball Express." Buescher, an American Airlines pilot who with his wife Tracey is active in the Pleasanton Military Families organization, recently flew an American Boeing 757 from Dallas to Sacramento, to Los Angeles, to San Diego, to Phoenix and back to Dallas, picking up some 180 children between the ages of 5 and 18 who had a parent killed in action while serving in Afghanistan or Iraq.
They were guests of the nonprofit Snowball Express organization set up in 2006 to honor children of those who gave their lives in the military since Sept. 11, 2001. More than 8,000 children and their surviving parents have been treated to four days at Disneyland, Universal Studios, or this year at a series of events in Dallas.
American Airlines is a major sponsor and the official airline of Snowball Express and this year provided eight commercial jet aircraft to pick up and take home again more than 1,500 children and a chaperone (usually a surviving parent) for the unforgettable holiday gathering. Like Buescher, pilots and crew members of the American Airlines planes that brought the families to Dallas from airports around the country volunteered their time, along with ground crews and airport agents.
After Buescher brought his plane to Sacramento for the start of the special trip, he worked with flight attendants and other volunteers to decorate the American 757 with streamers and banners, seat gifts and more. Then, wearing red hats and holiday-designed clothes--one pilot was dressed as Elvis, a flight attendant dressed as Elmo--they welcomed aboard the first group of families, doing the same on the next three stops as the plane filled up. As the plane left each terminal, fire crews lined the taxi way with all lights flashing and as the plane came by, water cannons sent a rainbow of water crossing over the jet.
For Buescher, it was an exhilarating way of making life a little more enjoyable for children who have lost a parent in the war. His emotions are real and personal. A Marine colonel, Buescher's reserve unit was among the first to be deployed at the start of the Iraq war in March 2003. That meant leaving Tracey to care for their home and two daughters, Olivia, then 8, and Krista, then 5, while he joined Marine units moving toward Baghdad from Kuwait. He knew fellow Marines who didn't survive. On Snowball Express, he found himself thinking of those fellow soldiers as he squeezed hands and gave bear hugs to children the age that his daughters were then whose father or mother were killed in action.
Still, Buescher said he was proud to be part of the Snowball Express effort that brought smiles to these children's faces and gave them and those with them four days of back-to-back fun in Dallas. Activities included a trip to the famous Southfork Ranch where the TV series "Dallas" was produced, an inside look at the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium and a private concert by actor Gary Sinise's "Lt. Dan Band." At the Dallas departure gate when the group left four days later, Santa was there with a band. Singer Lee Greenwood took the microphone and had the whole crowd singing a selection of Christmas songs. A lone trumpeter played the national anthem. Then hundreds of American Airlines employees said goodbye as the war widows and children headed back home with Snowball Express mementos in their hands.
Buescher said he hopes to be asked to serve as a volunteer pilot next December for Snowball Express V. He believes that he and others on his all-volunteer crew provided hopes and new memories to the children and their parents on board, giving them a chance to honor their fallen hero in ways other than by being sad or at a somber place, allowing them to have fun and to realize that it's OK to laugh.
For more information about the charity, sign on to www.snowballexpress.org.