Outside the front door, Luisa Vargas saw the military chaplain and uniformed officer, and she knew.
Vargas wept and told the men they were wrong. Her husband, Army Spc. Anthony Vargas, could not really be gone. He’s just hurt, she repeated. He’s just hurt.
A roadside bomb killed Vargas in 2010 in eastern Afghanistan. He was 27.
“I didn’t know how we would go on without him,” his wife recalled. “He was our life.”
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To help cope with the loss, Vargas and her three children 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 Sunday, more than 1,700 surviving spouses and children arrived at DFW Airport for the official kickoff party. American Airlines provided a dozen chartered airplanes that departed from 30 cities across the country.
Terminal C was transformed into a Hawaiian luau, with hula dancers and a tiki bar that served snow cones and balloon animals. Volunteers cheered as they lined the terminal, and members of the Patriot Guard Riders waved flags and offered high-fives.
For Vargas and her children — Nathaniel, 14, Lucas, 9, and Olivia, 7 — Snowball Express provides a way to honor their husband and father while spending time with other Gold Star families. This is the Vargas’ third year to attend Snowball Express.
“It hurts. It will always hurt,” said Vargas, who lives in Tennessee. “But when we’re here we can cry and talk and be ourselves. My kids feel at home here.”
Buck Kern, executive director of Snowball Express, said the holidays can be particularly difficult for families who have suffered a loss, and the nonprofit wanted to find a way to honor these families.
This year, guests will dine at Medieval Times and attend a private concert by Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band.
“The sacrifice of their heroes are not forgotten, and they never will be,” Kern said. “We want them to know even though they are living with tragedy, it is OK to smile and laugh.”
Since 2007, Crystal Thomas has tried to navigate the fine line between keeping her husband’s memory alive and helping her son and daughter find a measure of normalcy.
Thomas’ husband, Army Staff Sgt. Kenneth Thomas, died in 2007 in Okinawa, Japan. After several years, the family decided to attend Snowball Express for the first time.
“My children come first,” said Thomas, who is from Madison, Ala. “My husband would have wanted to make sure we were all living our lives, and that is what we try to do every day.”
Nearby, Amy Johnson stood with her son, Bryson Prater, 15, and daughter, Madison Prater, 11. Her husband, Army Staff. Sgt. Terry Prater, was killed by a roadside bomb in 2007 in Iraq. Prater’s daughter was only 18 months old.
Johnson, who is from Tennessee, said she wants her children to know so much about their father, and joining Snowball Express has helped the family talk.
“Every day is an adjustment. He was our hero,” she said. “I want our kids to know he loved the Army, and everything he did was for them.”