USA — Operation Toy Drop Proves ‘Santa is a Paratrooper’

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2010 — Pour­ing rain didn’t damp­en the hol­i­day spir­it as thou­sands of para­troop­ers descend­ed over Fort Bragg, N.C., this week­end, kick­ing off the world’s largest com­bined air­borne oper­a­tion while ensur­ing San­ta doesn’t over­look a sin­gle needy child.

13th annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop
Para­troop­ers line up in the ear­ly morn­ing of Dec. 10, 2010, to donate a toy for a local child in need while hop­ing to earn for­eign jump wings dur­ing Oper­a­tion Toy Drop on Fort Bragg, N.C. Through the 13th annu­al Randy Oler Memo­r­i­al Oper­a­tion Toy Drop, Army and Air Force ser­vice­mem­bers are donat­ing thou­sands of toys to bright­en the hol­i­days for chil­dren and fam­i­lies in need.
U.S. Army pho­to by Staff Sgt. Shar­i­lyn Wells
Click to enlarge

The Army’s Civ­il Affairs and Psy­cho­log­i­cal Oper­a­tions Com­mand launched the Randy Oler Memo­r­i­al Oper­a­tion Toy Drop on Dec. 11.

The first 1,300 active-duty, Army Reserve and Army Nation­al Guard sol­diers jumped from over Fort Bragg’s sog­gy Sici­ly Drop Zone before heavy clouds moved in, scrub­bing the mis­sion for the day. All 4,000 par­tic­i­pat­ing para­troop­ers will get their oppor­tu­ni­ty to jump – and to earn for­eign jump wings – as the oper­a­tion con­tin­ues this week.

The toy drop, now in its 13th year, pro­vides valu­able joint and com­bined train­ing, while enabling the mil­i­tary to give back to the local com­mu­ni­ty, said Army Maj. Gen. David M. Black­ledge, com­man­der of U.S. Army Civ­il Affairs and Psy­cho­log­i­cal Oper­a­tions Com­mand and host of the event.

The oper­a­tion involves sol­diers from the 18th Air­borne Corps, the 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion and Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand. Fly­ing them more than a dozen active- and reserve-com­po­nent C-130 and C-17 air­craft and crews from Pope Air Force Base, N.C.‘s 43rd and 440th Air­lift Wings, the 437th Air­lift Wing from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., the 815th Air­lift Squadron from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., the 145th Air Wing from Char­lotte, N.C., and the 118th Air­lift Wing from Nashville, Tenn.

In addi­tion, 26 jump­mas­ters are par­tic­i­pat­ing from nine nations: Botswana, Cana­da, Chile, Ger­many, Esto­nia, Thai­land, Poland, Latvia, Ire­land. Israel had planned to send jump­mas­ters, too, but had to can­cel due to big fires in north­ern Israel.

The jump­mas­ters issue air­borne com­mands in their native lan­guage, with a U.S. safe­ty offi­cial pro­vid­ing the Eng­lish trans­la­tion that sends the para­troop­ers out the air­craft door, Black­ledge explained. Once on the ground, the para­troop­ers get award­ed the allied country’s jump wings.

“This gives every­body the oppor­tu­ni­ty, not just to get the pro­fi­cien­cy train­ing they need as para­troop­ers and air crews, but also inter­op­er­abil­i­ty train­ing with our allies,” he said. “It pro­vides all of us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see how our allies con­duct the same kind of oper­a­tions that we do, and learn from each oth­er.”

Mean­while the com­plex­i­ty of the mis­sion pro­vides valu­able prepa­ra­tion for real-world mis­sions.

“There’s a tremen­dous amount of coor­di­na­tion to get all these dif­fer­ent units, all these dif­fer­ent planes and all these dif­fer­ent para­troop­ers com­ing togeth­er at the same time to exe­cute an oper­a­tion,” Black­ledge said. “That’s what we do in real-world sit­u­a­tions, so this gives us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to train just as we oper­ate.”

But the biggest bonus of the mis­sion, he said, is the chance to bright­en the hol­i­days for needy chil­dren who might oth­er­wise not receive a Christ­mas toy.

“That’s what brings this all togeth­er and makes this hap­pen: bring­ing para­troop­ers, air­men and our allies togeth­er over the hol­i­day peri­od for a great event that sup­ports a great cause,” he said.

Then-Staff Sgt. Randy Oler, a Spe­cial Forces sol­dier and Ranger assigned to U.S. Army Civ­il Affairs and Psy­cho­log­i­cal Oper­a­tions Com­mand, spear­head­ed the first Oper­a­tion Toy Drop in 1998. It grew each year until 2004, when Oler died of a heart attack at age 43 while per­form­ing jump­mas­ter duties aboard a C-130 air­craft.

Oler’s spir­it lives on through what’s now known as the Randy Oler Memo­r­i­al Oper­a­tion Toy Drop. This year, it col­lect­ed more than 6,000 toys, the most ever, to be dis­trib­uted with­in the com­mu­ni­ty.

Since its incep­tion, the annu­al toy drop has col­lect­ed and dis­trib­uted more than 40,000 toys in North Car­oli­na and Ten­nessee, Oler’s home state. Par­tic­i­pat­ing para­troop­ers donate most of the toys.

Every air­borne unit at Fort Bragg gets allo­cat­ed slots for the jump, but not enough for every sol­dier to par­tic­i­pate, Black­ledge explained. So to vie for one of sev­er­al hun­dred para­chutes dis­trib­uted through a raf­fle, each para­troop­er donates a new, unwrapped toy.

At 6 a.m. on Dec. 10, the day of the raf­fle, Black­ledge was amazed to see 1,600 sol­diers lined up in 21-degree tem­per­a­tures, all hold­ing toys with hopes they’d get to par­tic­i­pate. The out­pour­ing was amaz­ing, he said: bikes, dolls, elec­tron­ic games, even high­ly cov­et­ed X-Box units. One unit arrived with a whole truck­load of toys, far sur­pass­ing its num­ber of para­troop­ers.

“Amer­i­can sol­diers are some of the most com­pas­sion­ate peo­ple in the world, and it sure shows in the toys that are com­ing in,” Black­ledge said. “It’s real­ly neat to be here and see the gen­eros­i­ty and out­pour­ing of love.”

Army Pfc. Efren Cas­siana, assigned to the 319th Field Artillery Regiment’s Head­quar­ters and Head­quar­ters Bat­tery, said he was “pret­ty amazed” that he was among the sol­diers who won the right to jump through the raf­fle.

The Oper­a­tion Toy Drop jump was Cassiana’s first since grad­u­at­ing from Air­borne School on Nov. 5. He admit­ted he “had nerves” as his air­craft approached the drop zone, know­ing that with the weath­er con­di­tions, the jump would be chal­leng­ing. “But once those doors opened, I felt pret­ty good wait­ing for that green light,” he said.

Cas­siana said he also felt great earn­ing Chilean jump wings, and know­ing that the Lego block set he’d donat­ed would make a dif­fer­ence for a young child. “Some of them don’t get a lot of stuff, so what we are doing is going to mean a lot,” he said. “It’s a great feel­ing, know­ing that what we are doing is help­ing some­one out.” Army Spc. Christo­pher Hub­bard, anoth­er 82nd Air­borne sol­dier, called the oppor­tu­ni­ty to earn for­eign jump wings a big moti­va­tor in sign­ing up for the raf­fle that earned him a jump slot on the ini­tial man­i­fest.

Proud­ly bear­ing his new Pol­ish jump wings, he said Oper­a­tion Toy Drop “was def­i­nite­ly a reward­ing expe­ri­ence, not just for me, but for all the sol­diers out here.” Hub­bard said he’s also hap­py know­ing the Trans­former toy he donat­ed will make a dif­fer­ence in a lit­tle boy’s hol­i­day.

“This is a way to give back and do a good thing for the com­mu­ni­ty, espe­cial­ly for kids that might go oth­er­wise not get any­thing for Christ­mas,” he said. “I think all these gifts, even if they’re just lit­tle things, will make these kids smile that much more.”

Black­ledge called Oper­a­tion Toy Drop a great way to give back to the com­mu­ni­ty that has stood behind its local units as they con­duct some of the high­est oper­a­tional tem­pos in the mil­i­tary. “This is our way to show thanks to the com­mu­ni­ty by giv­ing back to the kids,” he said. “It’s a neat way of say­ing we are proud to be mem­bers of this com­mu­ni­ty.”

This year, for the first time, some of the young recip­i­ents got a chance to watch the air­borne oper­a­tions and receive their toys from vol­un­teers dressed up as San­ta and his elves. “Even though it was cold and rainy, the kids were hav­ing a blast watch­ing the para­troop­ers come down and then talk­ing to them,” Black­ledge said. “The chil­dren at Fort Bragg know San­ta Claus is a para­troop­er.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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