Snowball Express honors nearly 1,800 spouses and children of fallen heroes

12/14/2013 7:30 PM

12/14/2013 7:30 PM

Every morning, for a fraction of a moment, Kari Cook forgets that her husband, Ryan Cook, is gone.

Cook, an Army specialist, was killed in September 2011 by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. For two years, Cook has navigated a blur of birthdays, anniversaries, home repairs and holidays without him.

“Part of me thinks I’ll roll over and see him lying there in the morning,” said Kari Cook, who lives in Arlington, Wash. “When I don’t, I feel like I lose him all over again.”

To help cope with the loss, Cook and her three children — Jacob, 10; Taylor, 13; and Madison, 15 — joined Snowball Express, a nonprofit organization that honors the spouses and children of U.S. military personnel killed since 9-11 with a free four-day trip to North Texas.

On Saturday, Snowball Express stopped in Fort Worth. Nearly 1,800 surviving spouses and children from across the country arrived in Sundance Square for a celebration that included local dignitaries, performances by the Texas Boys Choir and the USO Show Troop and special appearances by Santa Claus and the Grinch.

A trip to the Fort Worth Zoo and concert by Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band followed.

Area residents, bundled in heavy coats and blankets, lined the motorcade route in downtown holding signs that said “Thank you” and “Your heroes are our heroes.” Members of the Patriot Guard Riders waved flags and shook hands with families.

Cook and her children, wearing T-shirts with Ryan Cook’s name and photograph, snapped photos and embraced one another. Cook, who attended Snowball Express for the first time last year, said the event provides a measure of comfort and a reminder that they are not alone.

“He was larger than life. He was our hero,” Cook said. “Our biggest fear is people will forget him. But here, no one forgets.”

Her daughter, Madison, added, “We don’t feel so lonely when we’re here.”

Dan Ronan, a spokesman for Snowball Express, said the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be particularly difficult for families that have suffered loss, so the nonprofit wanted to find a small way to make this time more manageable.

“We want to show these families who have suffered such a horrible loss that this country cares about them and respects the incredible sacrifice their families have made,” Ronan said. “We want to help families come together and have some joy and happiness.”

Waving an American flag, James House, 8, of Simi Valley, Calif., said he looks forward to Snowball Express all year.

His father, Navy medic John House, was abroad when James was born on Christmas Eve 2004. John House heard his son’s first cries on a satellite phone and saw him a few days later over a video hookup. But the two never met face to face. John House died in a helicopter crash in Iraq four weeks after his son was born.

“Those first few years were the hardest of my life,” said Melanie House-Bock, James’ mother. “Being a single mother. Losing my husband. We were high school sweethearts.”

As she teared up, her son patted her arm. “It’s OK, Mom,” he said.

“They treat him like he’s a hero here,” House-Bock said of her son, “and he deserves it.”

For Loramay Diamond of Seattle, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Sean Diamond, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2009, moving beyond the grief has been extraordinarily difficult. Still, she thinks of his blue eyes and infectious smile and sees him every day in their four children — Taylor, 18; Madison, 15; Sean, 13; and Athena, 10.

“Just when you think you’re OK,” she said, “you’re not.”

As volunteers passed out red, white and blue balloons for the crowd to release, Diamond and her children scribbled messages to their husband and father with a black marker pen.

On a red balloon, Loramay Diamond wrote: “We miss you. We love you. You are gone but not forgotten.”

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