Shattered military families find comfort in Fort Worth

FORT WORTH -- Ethan Garrigus was one-year-old when a roadside bomb killed his father, Mickel, in Taji, Iraq.

Ethan cannot remember the way his father doted on him those first few months, or the times they chatted on the phone, his father listening to his son laugh and gurgle.

"The hardest part is watching my son grow up without his father," said Natasha Garrigus, Ethan's mother. "It is painful."

To help cope with the loss, Natasha Garrigus joined Snowball Express, a non-profit organization that honors the spouses and children of U.S. military personnel killed since September 2001 with a free, five-day trip to North Texas.

On Sunday, Snowball Express made its first ever stop in Fort Worth. Some 1,700 surviving spouses and children from across the country rode in a 42-bus motorcade that departed Dallas and made its way to the Stockyards. A concert by Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band followed.

Area residents lined the motorcade route, waving American flags and holding signs that read, "We will not forget" and "Thank you."

When they reached the Stockyards, family members of fallen military personnel marched down East Exchange Avenue for a "Walk of Gratitude."

Young children handed out high fives, while teenagers wiped tears from their eyes. Mothers held their small children and clutched the hands of older ones, occasionally stopping to hug spectators and say thank you. A father walked with his young son perched on his shoulders.

Standing along the side of the road, Dax and Thomas Deroche, 9 and 7, of Fort Worth, waved to children their age. Their parents, Josalyn and Zak Deroche, wanted their kids to know the sacrifices some are making.

"Both of my children have spent their entire lives in wartime, even if they do not see it," Josalyn Deroche said. "I do not want them to forget what this country is about."

Families of fallen soldiers face numerous challenges, said Nina Kern, one of the organizers of Snowball Express. Not only do they lose a mother or father, they lose the structure of military life.

That is true for Melinda Wilkey, whose husband, David, died in 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq. Their three children, 5, 6 and 10 now attend school in Elkhart, Ind., with non-military classmates who know little about deployments or losing a loved one to war.

Snowball Express gives them one long weekend to be just like everyone else.

"We have made so many friends who can relate to our situations, who know what the past few years have been like," Wilkey said. "I can't even express what that feels like."

At home in Missouri, Ethan Garrigus talks about Snowball Express all year.

"He feels like he's the only one without a dad," Natasha Garrigus said, lifting her son so he could catch a glimpse of the cattle drive meandering through the Stockyards. "When he's here, he knows there are others like him."

As her two sons, 9 and 10, played nearby, Shanette Booker, whose husband, Andre, died in 2011 shortly after returning home from a deployment, reflected on the past year.

"We are trying to accept the fact that he is no longer physically with us," Booker said. "We still expect him to walk through the door and sit down at the dinner table."

Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056

Twitter: @sarahbfw