December 13, 2013 Updated: December 13, 2013 at 11:29 am
About six years ago, Jennifer Freitas and her son were offered a holiday vacation to Dallas on the Snowball Express, a four-day, all-expenses-paid getaway for families of fallen U.S. troops.
The wife of a fallen Marine helicopter pilot almost turned it down.
It wasn't that the offer was too good to be true.
But "the thought of a flight full of widows and kids seemed like everybody else's worse nightmare," Freitas said with a chuckle.
But it was wonderful, she said - so wonderful that on Thursday, she and her son prepared to board the Snowball Express yet again - this time with two other, younger Freitas children in tow.
Forty others accompanied them on the eighth-annual trip.
On Thursday afternoon, the Snowball Express took off from the Colorado Springs Airport for Dallas, where passengers met up with nearly 1,800 other attendees who flew courtesy of American Airlines and American Eagle, as well as other businesses and charities.
During their four days in Dallas, Snowball Express participants will be treated to a private performance by Academy Award-nominated actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, among other activities.
For Freitas, the trip is a chance to reunite with widow friends, including the wife of another Marine who died in the same crash as her husband.
It's also a chance to meet widows she's chatted with in online support groups.
"It's nice not to be alone - to feel like I can relax and let my guard down," she said.
"And the kids can spend time with kids they can relate to. Their classmates are used to dealing with divorce, but not this. It's nice for them to feel normal."
For Army widow Michelle Daniel, the trip is a chance to reflect on good times she and her sons had with her husband, Staff Sgt. John Daniel.
Her husband, a military policeman, died March 18, 2011, after a 10-month battle with brain cancer. His wife believes the cancer developed as a result of exposure to something during an Afghanistan deployment.
Daniel recalled time with her husband before he died.
"We laughed so much," she said. "When he came home, it was like he never left. We never had those issues. We were very fortunate."
Because her son, 17-year-old Tristan Daniel, will soon graduate high school and join the military, this year's trip might be last.
"So I'd better make it count," he said Thursday as he waited to board. "I hope to meet new people. They can talk to me freely. I'll listen. I hope to be of help."