Snowball Express takes grieving military families on fun weekends

PORTLAND, Ore. - You know you're boarding a different kind of flight when you spot Santa on your walk down the jetway.

That's the greeting several Portland-area families got this morning when they hopped on an American Airlines flight bound for Dallas. Inside the plane, the cabin was decked out in Christmas decorations. Passengers were smiling, laughing, and happily talking to each other. But the festive atmosphere belied the heartbreaking club all of the passengers belong to.

"I lost my father, Staff Sgt. David G. Ries," said Camryn Ries, who was traveling with her mother, Amanda.

The folks on this plane are those that fallen military members have left behind. American Airlines flies 1,800 hundred of them to Dallas every year to connect with each other. It's called the Snowball Express.

The airline says families can start to heal when they're around other families who've gone through the same experience.

"It's just nice to be around other people that have been through the same situation," said Amanda Ries.

"It's just really happy for my mother," said Camryn . "It's like a healing process."

There's plenty of help through that healing process. Each year, the Snowball Express gets a special sendoff. Members of the Patriot Guard Riders come to the airport with American flags. They're there to stand guard while family members walk on the plane. They then move to the tarmac while the plane taxis down the runway.

"The amount of support that we have at this time is through-the-roof amazing," said Amanda.