Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here


Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Gary Sinise Salutes Families of Fallen Soldiers

We must never forget those who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending freedom — or the loved ones they left behind

spinner image Snowball Express members get a chance to meet other families and bond during events sponsored by the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Gary Sinise Foundation's Snowball Express program gives surviving family members a chance to meet and bond with other families.
Courtesy Gary Sinise Foundation

Back in November of 2009, I was at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan when I was invited to attend a send-off ceremony for what’s called an “Angel Flight,” the airplane trip that carries a fallen warrior home.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Pucino, 34, a Special Forces soldier, had been killed shortly before my arrival when his vehicle struck an IED during a patrol. I arrived at the flight line shortly before 5 a.m. for the ceremony. In the early morning darkness, I could see a giant C-17 with the back ramp down and several troops standing at attention in respect.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

Bright lights lit the belly of the plane, where a few soldiers stood watch over the flag-draped coffin of their fallen brother. I had a lump in my throat that wouldn’t recede as I stood motionless for a moment, staring at the casket. It was a still and intensely somber scene.

Maj. Gen. Mike Scaparrotti accompanied me onto the plane, and we both knelt and rested a hand on top of the coffin. I closed my eyes, bowed my head and said a silent prayer for this hero and for his devastated family who would meet him at Dover Air Force Base.

spinner image several people representing multiple generations smile while talking to each other at a barbecue

You can subscribe here to AARP Experience Counts, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Choking back tears, I thought of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of families I have met who have lost loved ones in military service and how hard it must have been for them when the Angel Flight arrived home.

I was determined to know more about Matthew Pucino. It turned out that he was as all-American as they come. He’d played baseball and football as a boy in Massachusetts and in high school, he quarterbacked his school’s football team.

He went to college and earned a degree in criminal justice. He intended to pursue a career in law enforcement, but like so many others — including me — his life’s direction was changed forever by 9/11. He was outraged that terrorists had committed such heinous attacks on America and was determined to bring justice for those who had been murdered on our soil.

Matthew became a Green Beret, the toughest of the tough. He deployed twice to Iraq where he helped capture more than 200 insurgents. During a Christmas Eve mission, his team came under heavy attack. A badly wounded sergeant needed blood to survive; Matthew donated two pints of his own before swiftly returning to the fight.

In the intervening years, I have had the honor of becoming friends with Matthew’s parents — Al, a former Massachusetts state police captain, and Kathy. Along with their daughters, Matthew's sisters Lisa and Melissa, they founded the Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Pucino Memorial Foundation to keep their fallen hero Matthew’s memory alive, honoring his legacy of service by providing for the physical and emotional needs of combat wounded soldiers and their families.

See more Health & Wellness offers >

Another bereaved family member who is determined to give back is Regina Sather, whose husband Staff Sgt. Chad Simon, 32, died in August 2005 from combat wounds sustained in Iraq. Regina says Chad was a skilled marksman and mechanic, but also a practical joker. She also says Chad was an amazing father to Dylan, who was just five at the time.

Regina has dedicated her life to raising Dylan and channeling her pain to help others who have lost loved ones serving their country. I am grateful and honored that Regina is now an employee of the Gary Sinise Foundation, doing an amazing job working on our Snowball Express initiative.

Snowball Express serves the families of our fallen military heroes as well as families of fallen first responders. We are committed to year-round support for these families, encouraging them to make new memories, and helping to provide opportunities for them to connect with others who have suffered a similar loss.

spinner image The Gary Sinise Foundation's Snowball Express helps the surviving family members of soldiers who were killed in action.
Family members of fallen soldiers gather for a Snowball Express event.
Courtesy Gary Sinise Foundation

Snowball Express was actually started in 2006 as its own 501(c)(3) and I began supporting it the following year by donating my band to play for the children. Each year I would return to play for them, hundreds of children being flown in free of charge by American Airlines for an all-expenses paid trip. In 2018, we folded Snowball into the Gary Sinise Foundation as an initiative under our Relief and Resiliency program, and moved our annual event to Disney World.

Last month, along with our presenting sponsor American Airlines, once again the Gary Sinise Foundation was proud to host more than 1,800 military children and adults at our Snowball Express "Disney in December" event, while this year adding a second event for over 300 families — 646 children — of fallen first responders. Over the course of five days, these richly deserving families experienced the magic of Disney World and spent time with the only people who can truly understand the healing journey they are on: each other.

spinner image membership-card-w-shadow-192x134

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP The Magazine.

This annual event is about honoring the fallen while supporting and empowering the families left behind. In the Remembrance Garden, a large room decorated with American flags representing each fallen hero family in attendance, the children and surviving spouse have a quiet place to sit and spend time with their hero. And I was honored once again to perform with my Lt. Dan Band as the families were given a red-carpet welcome by members of the Patriot Guard Riders and the hundreds of volunteers who support our event each year.

My decades as an advocate for veterans, first responders and their families have taught me that the defense of our country and protection of our cities can come at a very high price. Lives can change in an instant and we can never do enough for those who have borne the brunt of these ultimate sacrifices — the families of the fallen.

Great Americans like Matthew Pucino and Chad Simon who have given their lives in defense of freedom, along with Gold Star family members like Al, Kathy, Lisa and Melissa Pucino, Regina and Dylan Sather, and countless others, are the reason I continue to do what I do. For many years now, my mission has been to help lift the spirits of our defenders and their families, a mission of respect, honor and gratitude, of helping their families through difficult times, and of doing all I can to serve and honor them.

We must ensure that the painful sacrifices of freedom’s defenders and their families are never taken for granted or forgotten. We must embrace the opportunities that freedom gives us, and support those who stand guard over it.

For me to be able to wrap my arms around the families of the fallen and tell them that we love them, appreciate them and always remember them is the least that I can do. The painful, healing journey that begins with an Angel Flight lasts a lifetime for those families. God bless you all and thank you.​

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?