FORT BRAGG, North Carolina – The U.S. Army is like a giant machine with several smaller cogs – each with its own special purpose – that, only when they come together, does the machine work. Many of those pieces, such as the Army airborne and special operations, as well as the Army Reserve, call Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home.
It’s here, were these cogs of the bigger Army machine come together to work side-by-side to help make a difference for people who need. They do this in the form of the annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop, hosted by the United States Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne).
Started in 1998 by Staff Sgt. Randy Oler, a USACAPOC(A) jumpmaster, Operation Toy Drop is a fun way for Soldiers and members of the Fort Bragg community to give back to the local community by donating toys to underprivileged children during the holiday season. Since its inception, Operation Toy Drop has grown into one of the world’s largest joint and combined airborne training exercises in the world, having raised more than 100,000 toys for children who wouldn’t have received gifts otherwise.
“Above everything else, above jumping out of an aircraft, it brings you the greatest joy that you could possibly imagine,” said Army Sgt. Blake Gaynor, a parachutist with the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachuting Team, when asked about how it feels to give back to the community.
Sadly, Oler passed away in 2004 from a heart attack while performing jumpmaster training aboard a C-130 Hercules aircraft. With the future of Operation Toy Drop in jeopardy, many organizations from the Fort Bragg community, including USACAPOC(A), 82nd Airborne Division, Special Forces, 18th Airborne Corps and the Army Reserve, along with several Air Force units, came together to ensure that Oler’s legacy remained intact.
“I’ve lived here for a year now and I understand now that this has been going on for quite some time now, 18 years,” said Keith Pierce, a parachutist with the Black Daggers. “To get to do this for the first year I’m here is a really good opportunity and I’m really excited to do this.”
Operation Toy Drop also gives paratroopers the unique opportunity to earn foreign jump wings from one of the seven partner nations participating in the event – a pretty big deal to those in the airborne community.
“Airborne Soldiers covet foreign jump wings,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Duran, a former paratrooper stationed in Colorado. “A paratrooper earning a set of foreign jump wings sets him apart from his peers. It establishes his ability to perform airborne duties while under the command of a foreign jumpmaster, demonstrates the paratroopers’ ability to adapt to any situation, and follow his training in order to conduct flawless airborne operations.”
“As a paratrooper, to earn these wings is an absolute victory,” added Sgt. 1st Class Sunnydale Hyde, a paratrooper with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, United States Army Special Operations Command. “A paratrooper likes to jump out of airplanes and we like to collect wings. So what we like to do is get up as often as humanly possible and get a chance to earn something else from another country that shows we’re dedicated, we’re paratroopers, we’re willing to jump, and we’re willing to fight.”
Operation Toy Drop is broken down into several phases. The first, and largest, phase includes the jump lottery, which gives Fort Bragg soldiers the chance to win a slot on one of the many airborne drops. This possibility has many Soldiers lining up with gifts to donate well before the start of the event – as early as 7:00 the morning before – and thousands of Soldiers safely falling from the skies as they jump from an aircraft under the command of a partner nation jumpmaster.
In the days following, several smaller airborne operations are conducted with members of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), Golden Knights, and the U.S. Army Black Daggers Parachute Demonstration Team.
These smaller operations not only allowed these Special Forces Soldiers the chance to earn their jump wings and continue to donate toys but also allowed them the opportunity to work side-by-side with the jumpmasters of the participating partner nations to help nurture those friendly relationships.
“We really pride ourselves in interoperability both on and off the battlefield,” said Pierce. “Doing a jump like this just further solidifies that link between our organizations.”
Since September 11, 2001, the United States has partnered itself with several NATO and other countries as it continues its fight against terrorism across the world. While all of our partner nations value freedom and are helping in this fight, more often than not, barriers arise that can cause miscommunication between soldiers of different nations – most notably language. For these paratroopers though, they all speak the universal language that is airborne operations.
“Everything translates pretty well,” said Gaynor, a Dallas, Texas native who jumped with the Dutch, Canadian, and Indonesian jumpmasters. “Kind of like how math is the same in every language so is skydiving. So, when we met up with those guys everybody just fell in line and we came up with a plan together of what was going to work best … everybody did their job and it was pretty seamless.”
“One of the reasons I do what I do is because we just want to make the world a little bit of a better place,” said Hyde. “If we’re able to jump in with other countries and jump in with other people who are trying to do the same thing, trying to make the world a little bit better, then that means that we’re able to work together and the more we’re able to work together the better the world becomes.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about Operation Toy Drop is that the Army actually drops toys out of the plane. In reality, the Soldiers donate the toys leading up to the exercise then perform a standard airborne drop, jumping from a fixed-wing aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules, the C-17 Globemaster III, C-27 Spartan, or the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter.
Two Black Dagger Soldiers took exception to that, however, as they strapped a Mickey Mouse and stuffed dog to themselves before they jumped, similar to how they would strap another human to themselves for a tandem jump. They then donated the toys once they landed – after symbolically awarding them their own foreign jump wings, of course.
According to Maj. Gen. Daniel Ammerman, commanding general of USACAPOC(A), this year’s Operation Toy Drop has raised more than 6,000 toys to be distributed to the many underprivileged children in the Carolina region. None of this would have been possible without the joint partnership of the thousands of paratroopers, military families, and the rest of the Fort Bragg community who either donated toys or time to make it such a success.
While every piece of the Army machine has its own special job to complete. Operation Toy Drop is a time when everyone comes together and works toward a common goal. Because, when push comes to shove, each member of the U.S. Army, whether they are Special Forces, Airborne, or anything in between, the mission is the same: to serve and protect the United States of America and protect its citizens from all its enemies, foreign and domestic.
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