Tickets, please, tickets!
You may recall the beginning of the famous song from the popular holiday movie The Polar Express.
TSA was part of the Snowball Express. Unlike the Polar Express, which took a young boy on a magical adventure to the North Pole, the Snowball Express took children of fallen American soldiers on an extraordinary adventure to the Magic Kingdom – Disney World – in Orlando, Florida.
Thanks to the Gary Sinise Foundation, the Snowball Express, an American Airlines flight, flew from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to Florida, making nine stops along the way. The goal was to bring holiday cheer to Gold Star families during what might not be the most wonderful time of the year for those whose loved ones died heroically in combat.
TSA partnered with SEA, the USO, Patriot Guard Riders, American Airlines and the Port of Seattle Fire and Police Departments to greet and bring joy and comfort to the Gold Star families, sending them off with the full spirit of the holidays in the air.
Santa and some of his elves flew in from the North Pole, and TSA officers screened the families and provided security for the festive event.
“I was fortunate to be able to welcome all the families at the document check counters,” said TSA Officer Hayes Lanier. “Families with children of all ages seemed excited to go on the trip.”
Supervisory TSA Officer Teri Shoemaker volunteered to honor the Gold Star families for their sacrifice and let them know they are appreciated.
“Holidays can be a hard time for a lot of people and even more so when you suffer the loss of a loved one,” Shoemaker noted. “These families supported our country and deserve to be honored and brought some joy.”
Lead Officer Richard Calalang said the Christmas spirit through the event was special with officers wearing Christmas hats and the checkpoint decorated, creating lots of smiles and laughter. Some airline representatives and volunteers were also in holiday costumes.
“Having this event helps a lot, especially to the kids and families by giving out a good vibe while coming through the screening process,” Calalang said. “This also shows the public that we care and give our very best effort to help the community as much as we can – as a TEAM.”
Supervisory Officer Krzysztof Zimonski, whose son serves in the U.S. Navy, is a member of the SEA TSA Honor Guard and felt the deep appreciation and respect for the families of the fallen military heroes during the celebration.
“I have great respect for the U.S. military service,” said Zimonski. “Honoring fallen soldiers and their families is one of the primary responsibilities of the TSA Honor Guard. I was proud I had a chance to demonstrate my organization’s involvement.”
When arriving at SEA’s Checkpoint 5, the Gold Star families, USO volunteers and Patriot Guard Riders were met by TSA Manager BrookHunter Whelchel, who welcomed them to the Snowball Express and wished them a wonderful journey.
“Checkpoint screening can be a stressful experience,” Whelchel said. “My goal was to ensure each person was greeted with a smile and a friendly, professional nature to put them at ease prior to going through security. For me, it was a sense of satisfaction and contentment being able in a small way to show support to these families for what they have experienced.”
After flying out of SEA, the Snowball Express picked up more Gold Star families at each stop until they reached their final destination in Florida.
“This event shows that TSA is willing to go above and beyond for the community,” said Whelchel. “While we still have a security responsibility to accomplish, we recognize the need to provide empathy and support for others.”
By Don Wagner, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs