By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
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.
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."
Army Maj. Gen. David M. Blackledge
U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command
Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop