FORT BRAGG, N.C. – It is an annual harbinger of Christmas here in the North Carolina Sand Hills.
Parachutes filled the skies over Sicily Drop Zone, here, Dec. 5 and 6, 2014, signaling the start of the 17th annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop.
Hosted by the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), an operational command under the U.S. Army Reserve Command, Operation Toy Drop is a nearly two-week gathering of Soldiers, volunteers, and allied jumpmasters, who spread the holiday spirit throughout the area.
Billed as the largest combined airborne operation in the world, Operation Toy Drop has a much deeper meaning – giving back to those in need in the communities surrounding Fort Bragg.
Paratroopers fill the sky at Sicily Drop Zone for the 17th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop, hosted by the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), a U.S. Army Reserve operational command, Dec. 6, 2014 at Fort Bragg, N.C. C-130H Hercules aircrews used the Adverse Weather Aerial Delivery System, or AWADS, to allow the paratroopers to safely exit the aircraft in the low clouds over the drop zone. (U.S. Army photo by Timothy L. Hale)
“Toy Drop really is a continuum of service,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Clapsaddle, USACAPOC chief of air operations division and Operation Toy Drop airborne commander. “All of our Service members provide a service to the country and in many cases, the community also provides services back to those in uniform.
“So with Toy Drop, we are giving back to the community. For our Soldiers it is another way of serving,” he said.
This year's first Soldier in line to donate a new, unwrapped toy was Pfc. Ezekiel Polite of El Paso, Texas. He wanted to give back to the community so much that he got in the donation line at 2:45 p.m. Thursday – nearly 17 hours before the doors opened at 8 a.m. Friday!
Polite, a unit supply specialist with the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Brigade Support Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, came to Toy Drop last year but was “way in the back of the line. I wanted to be first this year.”
Even though he admitted being first in line was his goal, ultimately, he understands that Toy Drop is about giving back to the community.
“It's all about the kids,” Polite said, before donating a child's scooter. “I try to stay humble and remind myself that this is for the kids. I do what I can.”
Polite wasn't the only one from his unit that made an early appearance.
Spc. Hector Rios, a power generator equipment repair specialist, was the third paratrooper in line – nearly eight hours behind Polite.
Rios, who donated a remote control car said, “It's nice to know the toy I bring will make some child happy. I know that when I went to buy the toy, I bought it as if someone was giving the toy to me – a younger me and something that I would want.”
In addition to bringing joy to a child this Christmas, Toy Drop offers the paratroopers a little something extra – foreign jump wings.
No Toy Drop would be complete without the assistance of allied jumpmasters. This year, jumpmasters from Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, and Poland, participated in Toy Drop.
Paratroopers are teamed up with one of the allies and their own airborne staff. Once a jump is completed, the paratroopers line up in front of their families and friends at Sicily Drop Zone to receive their wings.
For Sgt. 1st Class Shane Weigel of Minot, N.D., this was his third set of German jump wings. A member of 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, he knew what was coming.
Lt. Col. Andreas Wichert, the German Army Liaison at the 18th Airborne Corps, looked at Weigel's name and said, “A German name. Are you ready?” Weigel smiled and replied, “Yes” and Wichert forcefully punched, or “pinned” the wings into Weigel's chest.
“I've earned all three of my German wings at Fort Bragg,” Weigel said, smiling, showing no signs of pain from the chest punch.
Even though Toy Drop is in it's 17th year, operationally, it was different from past events.
In recent years, weather has played a big factor in the cancellation of many of the “lifts,” or aircraft full of paratroopers, which never took off from Pope Army Airfield.
This year, the 1,000 hard-slot paratroopers, those who needed a jump, donated their toys a day early and jumped on to Sicily on Friday. That meant there was a better likelihood the 500 paratroopers selected in the Toy Drop lottery on Friday, would make their jump on Saturday – weather permitting.
And it nearly worked. As has been the case in recent years, weather forced the cancellation of some of the lifts. This year, seven out of 10 lifts made it to the drop zone.
Thanks to some of the C-130H Hercules aircraft being equipped with Adverse Weather Aerial Delivery System, or AWADS, the flight crews were able to negotiate thick clouds over the drop zone which allowed the paratroopers to exit and land safely.
“All I saw was white (clouds) when I stepped out,” said Pfc. William Thompson, of Akron, Ohio, with the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne. “Then all of sudden you could see the ground. It actually was really smooth, not much wind.”
Another change this year was the addition of more Army Reserve assets to assist with the operation. Clapsaddle said that Army medics from the 3rd Medical Command, parachute riggers from the 824th Quartermaster Company (Heavy Airdrop Supply), 982nd Combat Camera, public affairs specialists from the 99th Regional Support Command and 318th Press Camp Headquarters, and Army Reserve Careers Division enabled a better use of available resources.
“In previous years, 18th Airborne Corps and individual units needed to provide their own medical support,” he said. “This year, 3rd MEDCOM personnel have medical providers and ambulances and are here for the duration of the operation.”
He said the support lends itself to the total Army concept.
“It's a coming together of assets, not only USACAPOC but the Army Reserve Command,” he said. “It showcases our capabilities to the Army that we can take something as complex as this operation and put it together.”
When it's all said and done, counting additional jumps for Special Operations Week at Luzon Drop Zone, Clapsaddle said approximately 4,300 paratroopers will descend from the skies.
“This is the largest Toy Drop we've done,” he said.
More photos available in frame below
By U.S. Army Timothy L. Hale
Provided through DVIDS
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