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Everybody knows that Santa is a Paratrooper

  • Published
  • By Capt. Lauri Turpin
  • 440th Airlift Wing
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. But on Dec. 6 at Pope, it was not a team of reindeer, but Maj. Jeff Dasher, a navigator in the 95th Airlift Squadron, who guided the mission for the 440th Airlift Wing's C-130 that flew a group of Soldier Santas across the morning sky. One might say he was born for this mission. "It's the name," Major Dasher said, laughing. "I had to be on this flight."

His flight was a part of the 12th annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop, a program sponsored by Ft. Bragg and Pope providing toys to needy children in the Fayetteville, N.C. area. The toys, donated by the participating service members, are delivered to children in time for Christmas.

More than 1,200 Army paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and 18th Airborne Corps suited up in their jump gear to be a part of the charity event that brought participants from as far away as Germany.

Col. Merle D. Hart, 440th Airlift Wing Commander, greeted the paratroopers as they checked their gear, and marched toward the flight line to board Major Dasher's C-130.

"I'm proud that the 440th can be a part of this operation," Colonel Hart said. "This is a great outreach that our soldiers can provide and a token of our support to the children of other military members and the local community."

This year, the 440th AW, in conjunction with the 145th Air National Guard Airlift Wing from Charlotte, NC, and the 910th Air Force Reserve Airlift Wing from Youngstown, Ohio, provided airlift for the day's event.

Since its inception 12 years ago, the program has become so popular that Army paratroopers have to win a lottery in order to participate. To enter the lottery, each individual must buy a toy for one of the needy area children. Though only 1,200 lucky winners actually jump, far more choose to participate and bring donated gifts to Ft. Bragg.

"They have a massive wrapping session," said Lt. Col. William Whittenberger, 440th Operations Group Commander. "A lot of the wives and families help out; it becomes a big party."

Colonel Whittenberger was mission commander for this year's Toy Drop and also piloted one of the C-130s.

"We've got 1,200 troops to drop in a fairly short time frame, so we're doing a parallel running course that's 17 miles long, and it is about 12 minutes from take off to drop," he said. "Our goal is five minutes between each air frame."

For Private First Class Caleb Wood, a 20-year-old Soldier stationed at Ft. Bragg, it would be only his sixth jump. Pfc. Wood, along with other members of his chalk, waited in the Passenger Terminal Three shelter on the Pope flightline as other Soldiers methodically yanked on parachute straps, tugged on helmets and ran expert hands over their gear.

"It's my first year doing this," said Pfc. Wood, who looked impossibly young, seated among the scores of older, more experienced paratroopers. "I bought a tricycle to support the event."

As Pfc. Wood stood in line for his turn, 1st Lt. Judith Wood, 126th Transportation Co., 82nd Sustainment Brigade, waited for her turn to climb inside the fuselage of a C-130 to jump.

"I enjoy this because it's a rush, and it's great for the kids," she said. "I hope I'm here again next year. They tell you not to look down, but when you're there you can't help it. We ask ourselves why we're doing this, but when we jump it's all worth it."

Seated on the bleachers set out in the red sand against the stark-winter blue sky, family members waited alongside the Sicily Drop Zone located on the far side of Ft. Bragg for their loved ones. As the C-130 approached, they held up their hands to shield their eyes against the glare of the sun. The plane flew in smoothly, and one by one the dark silhouettes of the soldiers dipped out of the plane and snapped straight as one after another their parachutes ballooned into perfect

The line of parachutes stretched along the field, as those soldiers who had already completed their flight marched in formation past the bleachers.

Meghan Scott and her husband, Army Captain Andrew Scott of the Air Defense Battalion, donated a Candyland game.

"(Captain Scott) loves to jump, and it's a great way to help out," she said. "We're very fortunate to live the way we do, so this is just a small way to give back."

It's striking that during a year of financial turmoil and incessant deployments, so many servicemembers volunteer their time, effort and money to support those less fortunate.

For more than 1,000 children, these Soldiers and Airmen flew in a promise to them that they would have a very Merry Christmas. It's the spirit of the season, but it's also a hallmark of the beliefs of our Armed Forces - that service to others is not just a saying; it's a way of life.