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Support after sacrifice

Families of soldiers who have died arrive in Southern California for Snowball Express.

December 16, 2006|By Amanda Pennington

JOHN WAYNE AIRPORT — Almost four years ago, Kelly Gibbons' entire life changed. On Jan. 3, 2003, her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Gibbons died while serving in a special operations unit in Afghanistan.

Over the last three years, Kelly Gibbons and her two daughters, Lauren, 7, and Emily, 4, have had to put their lives back on track without dad around.

"Everything changed, I mean, life in general," Kelly Gibbons said. "But the pieces have slowly been coming back together, so that's good."

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On Friday, the Gibbons family arrived at John Wayne Airport from Clarksville, Tenn., to enjoy a weekend chock full of fun and games. It was something Kelly Gibbons said her daughters have been talking about since they signed up for the Snowball Express, a holiday event for the children and spouses of fallen servicemen and women.

"I'm excited, we've been waiting for this day for a long time," Lauren said waiting to board a bus headed for the Westin South Coast Plaza where they are staying this weekend.

The Gibbonses were among more than 900 people who flew into John Wayne, Los Angeles International Airport and Ontario Airport on the Snowball Express, which was started by Michael Kerr of Laguna Niguel.

"It's turned into a way for the nation as a whole to show how much they appreciate the sacrifices these men and women make defending our freedom while we're at home," Kerr said in a phone interview Friday.

The families will be treated to hotel stays at some of Newport-Mesa's finest, including the Westin South Coast Plaza, the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel and Spa and the Marriott-Bayview near Newport Dunes. But the gifts don't stop there.

To get into the spirit, Orange County style, the group was going to the Crystal Cathedral to see "The Spirit of Christmas." Also, they were scheduled to attend a Christmas shindig hosted by Oakley, followed by ice skating at the Irvine Spectrum — something that Thomas Graham, 7, said he's been thinking about for a while. Thomas flew in Friday from Tulsa, Okla., with mom Melissa Graham and older brother J.R. Graham. Their dad, Marine Corps Sgt. James Graham was killed in August 2005.

"Ice skating," Thomas blurted out when asked what he was most looking forward to.

And although the thought of ice skating was on the tip of Thomas and J.R.'s tongue, the trip to Disneyland obviously excited many of the kids.

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