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Families of fallen soldiers leave for special "Snowball" vacation

Children from two families who lost their fathers to the war in Afghanistan boarded a flight at Hector International Airport this morning for a vacation to Dallas courtesy of the nonprofit group Snowball Express.

For 5-year-old Hailee McCormick of Bismarck, it was her first time flying.

"I'm going to sit by the window," she said.

Her father, National Guard Cpl. Curtis Mehrer, 21, was killed June 6, 2006, in Afghanistan while on a reconnaissance mission when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle.

Her mother, Kalleena McCormick, 24, learned about the Snowball Express program in late October through the Guard and decided to sign up.

McCormick said Hailee was only 11 months old when her dad died and has little memory of him, but they talk about him daily.

She hopes it will be good for Hailee "just to meet other kids that have gone through the same experiences as her and know that she's not the only one that has had a loss," she said.

The Snowball Express is a nonprofit established in 2006 to bring a few days of joy to the children of military members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

American Airlines is the program's official airline. This year, 30 chartered and non-chartered aircraft will depart from 48 cities, including Fargo, to pick up more than 1,300 children and spouses of fallen U.S. military personnel, according to the airline.

Eileen Goodiron and her daughter Joely, 8, and son Alex, 7, are making their third trip aboard the Snowball Express. Goodiron's husband, Nathan J. Goodiron, died in a rocket-propelled grenade attack Nov. 23, 2006, during a combat patrol mission with the 188th Air Defense Artillery unit in Afghanistan.

The family went to the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium and to a rodeo during last year's trip.

This time, Joely said she's looking forward to Six Flags and to and meeting up with friends she met last year who've also lost parents to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's like they know how it feels," she said.

Before the families boarded the flight, Airport Executive Director Shawn Dobberstein read proclamations from Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple declaring today "Snowball Express and American Airlines Day."

"To our families, your loved ones will never be forgotten, and enjoy yourselves" Dobberstein said.

With strong winds blowing snow around outside the airport, McCormick said she was "definitely ready for warm weather."

"I don't know if I'm going to come on the flight back," she said, laughing.