FORT BRAGG, N.C. — “There’s two things we do each year at Toy Drop — collect a whole bunch of toys for children around the community and we put a bunch of paratroopers out of an aircraft. And we (have done) just that this year,” smiled Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Jacobs, commanding general of the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne). “We live in our communities around the country. We give back to those communities … and it’s evident here.”
With less than favorable weather, the 16th Annual Randy Oler Operation Toy Drop was held Dec. 7 on Sicily Drop Zone, turning this year’s event into an adverse weather aerial delivery system operation.
Hundreds of paratroopers jumped into the clouds, earning themselves a set of foreign jump wings. The event is the world’s largest combined airborne operation that allows paratroopers to conduct safe, valuable training and also raise toys for underprivileged children around the local community, something the founder of the event, Sgt. 1st Class Randy Oler, a former USACAPOC(A) soldier, envisioned in 1998 when the first event raised more than 500 toys.
Over 3,500 paratroopers donated toys ranging from Barbies to bikes to large superhero action figures, all for the chance to be put into a lottery to earn the opportunity to jump with a foreign jumpmaster from one of nine countries, to include Germany, Poland, Latvia, Canada, Italy, Netherlands, Brazil, Sweden, and Chile. The fact that only 500 parachutes where up for the lottery and the weather not looking ideal for a jump didn’t stop these giving Soldiers from ensuring that children around the community have a present under the tree.
Sgt. Jermaine Jackson, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, once again earned himself the title of first man in line for lottery day, Dec. 6. In 2011, he was also first man in line. This year he made his way to Green Ramp the night prior to the lottery, staking his claim at 8 p.m. Armed with only his 2011 Operation Toy Drop sweater as a pillow, his uniform and fleece, a small girls bicycle and toy machine gun, he slept outside in the grass.
“I’ve been on the other side of all this,” Jackson explained, a two time Toy Drop veteran earning Chilean and Uruguayan jump wings in previous years. “It’s not about the wings or the jumping. It's all about the holiday spirit; Santa Clause leaving boot prints—it’s about giving back.”
Sgt. Christopher Robbins, G Co., 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment also joined Jackson on Dec. 5 around 10 p.m. The two bonded overnight and into the wee hours of the lottery day.
"I grew up in foster care, I had six different Families and I usually went to the Salvation Army for things I needed or wanted,” explained Robbins, who donated a bike. “If I had received something like this I would have been ecstatic. I want to give back!”
Toys donated will be distributed to children’s homes and social services in the local community, said Sgt. 1st Class Katie Reese, a 13 year Operation Toy Drop veteran and the head of the toy collection and distribution team.
“Some of the toys will stay on Fort Bragg, where they will go to military families. While others will go to children's homes in Raleigh, Oxford and Charlotte,” Reese explained. “We’ll also donate to a nearby homeless shelter and social services offices in the counties that surround Fort Bragg.”
Last year, Jacobs was able to visit Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte and help distribute toys to the children living there.
“The greatest (part) of this is getting to see the children receive the toys that these paratroopers donate,” said Jacobs. “The look on their faces when they come down with IVs in their arm and in wheelchairs to the waiting room of the hospital to get their toy is just tremendous.”
An estimated 10,000 toys will be donated between the lottery and in the following days when paratroopers with special operations unit’s forces participate in various jumps throughout the week. Drop-off boxes will be available at each Post Exchange on Fort Bragg and throughout the community surrounding the installation until Dec. 12 for people who would like to donate toys.
Not only is Operation Toy Drop a way for paratroopers to give back to their community, but it’s also an opportunity to train with other allied nations.
“I’m very happy to be in the USA and to jump with United States paratroopers and the other countries,” said Paratrooper Marco Taddei, a soldier from Italy. “I think it’s a very important celebration (in which we) build camaraderie and friendship with the parachutists all over the world. I hope next year we can return and carry on the tradition.”
Jackson agreed, “I would love to see this event grow even bigger; because the more parachutes, the more toys. Which means more children will get a present under the tree.”