FORT BRAGG, NC – Rain-laden skies could not dampen the spirit of the Soldiers on Fort Bragg as they jump out of airplanes over Sicily drop zone in support of the 16th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop Dec. 7.
The toy drop is a tradition at Fort Bragg sponsored by U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) USACAPOC (A). Nearly 3,500 jumpers from the U.S. and nine other countries supported the charity event that coincided with the beginning of Special Operations Forces week.
“Over the years what started as a very small event where one Soldier who wanted to collect toys to give to his community to show his appreciation, has grown into this major operation that covers almost a full week and involves thousands of Soldiers and in the end distributes anywhere from 10-15,000 toys,” said Lt. Col. Annmarie Daneker, the USACAPOC (A) public affairs officer. “It was his idea, his spirit and his intent to continue on every year.”
Operation Toy Drop is a weeklong affair that started in 1998 by then-Staff Sgt. Oler, who was a U.S. Army Special Operations Command Soldier when USACAPOC (A) was part of that organization. He wanted to incorporate airborne operations, foreign military jumpmasters and local charities to provide toys to children in need. Oler died in 2004, but the command continued the tradition.
This year’s drop started on Dec. 6 with a lottery to see who would secure a seat for the jump on Dec. 7. Soldiers were asked, but not required, to bring a toy to Green Ramp on Pope Army Air Field. When they arrived they were greeted by players and cheerleaders from the Carolina Panthers.
SOF Soldiers from Fort Bragg supported the event by donating toys and providing jumpmasters to work with paratroopers from other nations.
“It’s the best way that the U.S. Army can give back to the local community,” Sgt. 1st Class John Manning, 528th Sustainment Brigade (Airborne). “It brings in the warrior spirit to earn foreign wings and at the same time we give toys to the local community for the children whose parents might not be able to afford to give a gift. It’s a great program.”
The toys received by the Soldiers are collected by “elves”, volunteer Soldiers from USACAPOC (A), who sort the toys by age and gender. It is a tedious process but an enjoyable one.
“It’s almost like being Santa Claus in green clothes,” said Spc. Stephanie Peterson of USACAPOC (A). “It’s very rewarding to know that children who possibly wouldn’t be getting a toy are getting a toy. Although it takes a lot of work to make this happen, that’s what keeps our team going is just knowing that this is going to be helping these kids that might not see a toy if it were not for our dedication and service.”
The toys are given to children of Soldiers in need, orphanages and children’s hospitals in Fort Bragg and the Sandhill area.
“It is an opportunity to give back to the community as a whole not just the military but the civilian side of the community as well,” Sgt. 1st Class Noah Pryear, 3rd Military Information Support Battalion, said. “Soldiers show their appreciation to their community by bringing in a toy even though they know they may not get on the jump but they still donate their toys for a worthy cause.”
Master Sgt. Christopher Hecker, USACAPOC (A), took part in his seventh toy drop. He has watched it grow throughout the years. While the number of jumpers has increased, he noted that what has stayed the same is the commitment of the Soldiers to the community.
“The purpose has always been to collecting toys and supporting the local community,” he said. “Bringing a smile to somebody’s face is never a bad thing.”