An advertisement for the Snowball Express Disneyland trip.

An advertisement for the Snowball Express Disneyland trip. (Courtesy of

WASHINGTON — Army Maj. Paul R. Syverson III had plans to take his children to Disneyland, but work kept getting in the way.

Once, his tour in Iraq was extended. Another time he was injured before a planned family vacation.

In June 2004, Syverson was killed in a mortar attack in Balad just weeks before he was to return home.

This December, Syverson’s family will finally visit the happiest place on Earth, thanks to a charity organizing a holiday Disney trip for grieving military families. His wife, Jackie, said her 9-year-old son is looking forward to the vacation, even if it will bring back some painful memories.

“He never made it there with Dad,” she said. “And he still won’t go there with Dad.”

The charity, the Orange Coast Snowball Express, is being organized by California real estate consultant Mark Kerr, who ran a similar program for needy children in 1998. He started organizing this year’s event 10 months ago, as a way of helping out the military community.

“This is just meant to be an incredible dream weekend for these kids,” he said. “We want to help make up the difference, in whatever way we can, between where government help stops and whatever they need.”

With help from local Rotary Clubs and other volunteers, Kerr has secured a host of donations to bring the grieving families to southern California in mid-December.

Southwest Airlines has pledged free flights. Marriott and Fairmont hotels have set aside rooms for their stay. Local stores have donated money and gift cards to give the families a pre-Christmas shopping spree for themselves.

So far, Kerr has a few hundred families signed up — most, like the Syversons, found out through Gold Star Wives of America — but he’s hoping for more.

“There are 1,200 children out there who have lost a military mother or father since Sept. 11,” he said. “We’d like to bring all of them here.”

A lot needs to be done before that can happen. Kerr is still looking for ways to fly families stationed overseas back into the U.S. free of charge, and only has about 100 hotel rooms so far.

But he’s confident those details will be worked out before the families start arriving, scheduled for Dec. 15.

Jackie Syverson said the chance to be with other children in the same situation is as important to her as the pomp and pageantry that her son will get to see.

“A lot of times you go somewhere and you’re ‘that kid,’” she said. “We moved from Fort Campbell to Pennsylvania after Paul’s death. Now he’s definitely the only military kid, and the only kid who’s lost a father.

“But there, he won’t be the only one going though it. That’s really good.”

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