Originally posted on Facebook.
For those of you unaware, Snowball Express is an event held every year serving the children of our fallen military heroes. It’s a time for the kids and parents with a common bond to share a safe space, meet supportive friends, and have some “decompression time”. This post is about the hardest “job” I’ve had with the Patriot Guard Riders, who were at this year’s Snowball Express.
Most of the PGR that are involved with Snowball Express look at it as one of our “fun” events. Instead of our regular funeral missions, this is one where we get to have a good time with the families involved. Yes, they’re involved because of sad circumstances, but it’s a time for those involved to have some fun.
A Quick Favor
This year, SBE and the PGR put up one American flag for each family representing their fallen heroes. That was over 650 flags. It was a beautiful yet somber reminder of the sacrifice these families have suffered for us. On each of those flagpoles was a plastic covered card bearing the name of that fallen hero. Last night during the closing ceremonies, family members were told they could remove the card as a keepsake (but to please leave the flags).
I was standing in line with the kids to go to “kid corner”, and have some fun… I mean, do my volunteer duties and supervise the children. As I was standing in line, one of the moms approached me to ask a favor (the PGR get a lot of the parents approaching us for help, over the years we’ve built a strong trust relationship). She said the cards were zip tied on tightly, and asked if I would help getting hers off.
I got out of the line with her, and we went to the flag in question. Sure enough, the placard was on tight, and I couldn’t get my key (the only “tool” I had with me) behind the zip-tie to break it off. One of the other moms saw us, and said that she just twisted the card, which tore the spot between the holes. Even that wasn’t a quick fix, as they were re-enforced with plastic coating. But I got that one done, the mom thanked me, and I turned to go back inside.
Out In the Cold
I had taken about five steps when another mom asked the same favor. Now it was pretty cold out last night, and I had left my jacket on the bike, so I was in short sleeves and my leather vest. It was bearable, but it was still cold. Needless to say, that card led to another, and another, and another.
After about four or five of them, the State Captain from Arizona handed me a knife so I could cut the ties instead of tearing through the placard. It got pretty routine – have the family member hold the placard with their hands in front of it (so they don’t risk getting cut), cut the zip tie in the back, slight twist to remove the tape at the bottom, and it’s off. It got where it took me about 10 seconds to actually do it and move on to the next one that needed help. I was zipping through them pretty quick, and I thought I may get this done before I turn into a popsicle after all.
Then I noticed the mom and her daughter on about the 12th one. Mom was trying to hold back her sobs, and her daughter was hugging her shoulders.
And I was ashamed, and embarrassed.
I wish I could say that the cold suddenly went away, and all I did was concentrate on those two poor ladies. It didn’t. Though my attitude changed, it was still cold out and my hips and feet still hurt and I knew I could only keep doing this for so long. However, I did stop and put my arms around them both, and said “I am so sorry for your loss”. And I meant it. They thanked me, and took the placard bearing their hero’s name and service, and walked away.
I slowed down at that point. I still tried to move quickly to get things done, and still desperately wanted out of the cold, out of the depressing “job”, and to get back inside where it was warm and kids were having fun; but I realized that this was a worthy reminder of what the mission of the Patriot Guard Riders is all about. After that, instead of quickly cutting the zip-tie and moving on, I respectfully asked them hold the placard. Then before I cut it, I looked at their faces. It was hard to do. It was almost impossible to do; but I did it because I needed to remember, what we do can be “fun”, but it’s not about fun. It’s about men and women who, as the cards stated, paid the ultimate sacrifice for us, and it’s about the families left behind that have borne the burden of that sacrifice.
I would say that most of the families whose faces I looked into that night were pretty matter of fact about what was going on. They were getting another small memento to be added to what was probably a large collection of far more impressive mementos about their loved one. But there were some, a pretty large number in fact, to whom this was a pretty somber moment. I was asked to take pictures of moms with their kids in front of the cards. A few times I was even asked to stand in a certain spot so they could take a picture of the card being removed with the flag waving above it. In one case I held a grandmother who was there with her daughter’s children as she sobbed loud enough for everyone around us to hear “I just miss her so much”. When I told her I was sorry, she said “She’s in heaven now, and her kids are with us.” There were more than I cared to count that cried as I stood with them.
After what seemed like hundreds of families and several hours of cutting zip-ties, the courtyard was empty where the flags were. Other PGR members had been doing the same as I, so it was probably more like a few dozen families and an hour or so of zip-tie cutting, but it appeared our “job” was done. I wasn’t a popsicle after all, but it was nice to get back inside where it was warm, and the kids were laughing and playing. My hips and feet were just too tired to join in, but I sat and talked with several and watched others. Then I went home. Sort of an anti-climactic ending for what is typically a “fun event” for me.
“Such a Girl”
Sunday night I met a woman who told me her husband’s story. I sat in front of her last night during the closing ceremonies (right before the flag “incidents”), and jokingly told her she’s “turned me into such a girl”. She asked what I meant. I said that after hearing her story, I probably cried half the way home, and only girls are supposed to get mushy and cry. She laughed (as I hoped she would) and said she understood. See, a 60 year old guy dressed in motorcycle leathers is supposed to be too tough to cry like that. Last night, I was feeling “like such a girl” again, but this time it was most of the way home.
My understanding is that SBE and the PGR are going to make the “Honoring Our Fallen” flag project an annual event. So, next year, I’ll be sure to bring my jacket to the closing ceremonies, along with something to properly cut the zip-ties. I will look forward to this “hardest job” of mine, because I need that reminder of what our mission is all about.