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Holiday Tradition For Children Of Fallen Heroes

Bertolino family: Daniel, Susan, Jason, Karina
Bertolino family: Daniel, Susan, Jason, Karina

By BJ Austin, KERA News

Dallas, TX –

Family holiday traditions come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, they're created by unexpected circumstances. As part of the annual KERA Holiday Traditions project, KERA's BJ Austin reports on the "Snowball Express" which made a stop in North Texas last week.

At Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Snowball Express volunteers spent an entire day welcoming 1400 children and spouses of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Susan Bertolino and children arrived from Murrietta, California.

Bertolino: Six years ago, my husband was killed in Iraq, during the first year of the war.

Six-foot-six, 40 year old Army Staff Sgt. Stephen "Tony" Bertolino worked in aviation maintenance. He was killed when his vehicle was hit by enemy fire as his convoy traveled through Haditha Iraq. For Susan Bertolino and the couple's four children, Christmas has been a difficult time since. In 2006, the Bertolino's joined the first Snowball Express: four days of fun; making new holiday memories with others who have lost parents, husbands or wives in the line of duty since 9/11.

Bertolino: It's a fun, comfortable place to be around other families that are in the same situation as us. And the kids realize they're not alone. And the moms; you get to meet each other, a lot of the moms. And it's just wonderful. The kids have a great time. They look forward to it all year.

This year, three Bertolino children arrived at DFW for the fourth Snowball Express. 19 year old Tony Jr. "aged out." After a flight on one of eight donated Snowball Express American Airlines jets, the Bertolino's were directed to donated charter buses. The veterans motorcycle "Patriot Guard" escorted the buses to downtown Dallas hotels, which donated hundreds of rooms.

This is the first year Snowball Express has come to Dallas-Fort Worth. It had been based in Southern California, around Universal Studios and Disneyland. The North Texas stop included trips to Southfork, the Mesquite Rodeo; and Cowboys Stadium; as well as a day at the Dallas Convention Center, which was transformed into a giant amusement park. That day began at Dallas City Hall with a "Walk of Gratitude" to the Convention Center a couple of blocks away. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Retired General Peter Pace came to walk with the families.

Pace: I got here last night, I walked into a room where there were 1400 family members all in one room, eating dinner. And it just has such an impact on you - the sacrifice that they've made.

Snowball Express officials say this year's event cost five and a half million dollars - in cash and in-kind donations. American Airlines pilot, Cpt. Steve Blankenship says it's a gift that carries real meaning.

Blankenship: Holidays are a hard time, and this is just our way of trying to touch some hearts, touch some minds, and show them that we love them. The words from the families to us have been thank you, thank you, you don't know. And quite honestly we don't know the pain.

And that's the key to Snowball Express's success as far as 18 year old Daniel Bertolino is concerned. He says the annual holiday tradition has helped his family cope with being without Dad, especially his younger brother and sister.

Daniel Bertolino: I was a little bit older when it happened. They were kind of young. It helped them because they were given some guys that would hang out with them, some of the military guys, and so they would talk with them and stuff, and help them get more open with it, and whatnot: talking with some of the other kids about it. Actually just talking about it instead of keeping it in, bottling it up within themselves. So I think that's how it's helped the most.

Next year's Snowball Express holiday tradition will be different for 12 year old Jason and 13 year old Karina Bertolino -- and Mom. It will be without Daniel, who says --- if all goes well - he'll be at the Naval Academy in Annapolis service to country, another Bertolino tradition.

Help us continue our holiday tradition by sharing one of yours, go to KERA's 'Holiday Traditions' page at

Email BJ Austin