(Editors note: This is last part of a multi-story series that will explain what Operation Toy Drop is, who started it, and the people who make the event happen year after year. This week's topic features the parachute lottery and the airborne operation on Sicily Drop Zone.)
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - It was apparent on Dec. 9, at 6 a.m., when the first paratrooper got in line in front of Green Ramp on Pope Field, that he wanted the chance to earn a pair of foreign jump wings. But his motivation was the opportunity to donate a toy to a child this holiday season.
Spc. Jermaion Jackson, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, joked that it took about a week to prepare and train to be the first paratrooper standing in line, specifically a lot of push-ups and sit-ups and eating right. But in reality, Jackson woke up really early, armed with a Captain America toy and tank.
"It's bitter sweet because I had a battle buddy who was parked right next to me and he was there since midnight actually and I showed up at 2 a.m. However, I figured instead of staying inside the car and staying warm and toasty, I decided go out and stand in front and now I'm the true number one. It's awesome to be number one," said Jackson.
"I think (Operation Toy Drop) is a beautiful idea. I like the idea that some kids out there are going to get squared away. I have two kids of my own and we already have our Christmas set up so it's good to do that for someone else."
Over 3, 000 paratroopers donated toys ranging from Barbies to bikes to MP3s for the chance to be put into a lottery to earn the chance to jump in the 14th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop. The fact that only 300 parachutes where up for the lottery didn't stop these giving Soldiers from ensuring that children across the country have a present under the tree.
Operation Toy Drop rolled community service, airborne operations and international cooperation all into one giant event. All toys collected will be dispersed to over 26 local children's homes and social service agencies in the coming weeks, not to mention the hundreds of toys already donated and distributed to social service agencies in eight other locations from California to New York. Military Families in need, and Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center also receive their share of Operation Toy Drop gifts.
The operation gives the military community the opportunity to help Families in need over the holiday season and offers Soldiers a holiday treat of their own. Paratroopers who donate an unwrapped toy are entered for the opportunity to participate in airborne operations supervised by a foreign jumpmaster from one of ten countries -- Toy Drop veteran participants Canada, Chile, Germany, Thailand and Poland, and newcomers Cambodia, Latvia, Ukraine, Uraguay and the Netherlands.
Pope Field's Green Ramp loading area turned into the world's least likely toy store Dec. 9, as Soldiers lined up for the donation and jump slot raffle with toys in one hand and their helmets in the other. The general rule of thumb among paratroopers is donate a gift worth receiving; something they'd be happy to see their own children unwrap during the holidays.
For Spc. James Hall, XVIII Airborne Corps, whose lottery number was called first, Operation Toy Drop was just another way to give back to the community.
"I just remember staring at my ticket trying to remember my number and as soon I heard it, I was stoked. It was crazy because I do this every year, not the jump thing, but actually donate. My mom is the one who actually said that if you have, you should give to those who don't have," explained Hall. "I was just hoping to get inside and get a slot, and the fact that I got the first slot is just crazy; never thought that would happen."
Hall brought a bicycle, helmet, elbow and knee pads to be donated, "Figured you couldn't ride a bicycle without the PPE (proper protective equipment)."
After graduating from airborne school, deployments prevented Hall from jumping. Operation Toy Drop will be the 10th jump for the paratrooper who is afraid of heights.
Operation Toy Drop began in 1998 and at the time, brought in around 550 toys for children in need. Its founder, then-Staff Sergeant Randy Oler, had dreamed of an event that combined airborne operations, foreign military jumpmasters and local charities. When Oler passed away in 2004, Operation Toy Drop inherited his name and his spirit.
"Since the beginning we have collected over 56,000 toys. This is a way for paratroopers to give back to our community," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Jacobs, U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command commanding general. "For someone like me who's been in the Army for 32 years and been around the airborne a long time, it's always great to be around paratroopers, especially great to be part of an operation like this. Not only do these guys get to jump for fun, they get to give these toys to less fortunate children."
Operation Toy Drop continues to grow as more and more organizations and businesses jump to support the spirit of the event. Thus far in 2011, that number has surpassed 13,000, and continues to rise, as toys continue to come in over the next week from special operations units and community donation boxes located around Fayetteville.
Toy Drop is great for a number of reasons, explained Jacobs, who has 132 jumps in his log. "Not only do we get to help these kids have a great holiday season that they wouldn't get otherwise, but we are also giving these great, young paratroopers the opportunity to earn a set of foreign jump wings, a once in a lifetime experience for them," he said.
"And as an Army Reserve command, which has the majority of the civil affairs and (psychological operations) Soldiers, we also have the majority of the Army Reserves paratroopers," he added. "So, it's our opportunity to show the rest of the Army that there is no difference between an Army Reserve paratrooper and an active component paratrooper, for that matter the difference between an Army Reserve Soldier and an active component Soldier. So it's a great operation all around," Jacobs explained.
Operation Toy Drop is now the world's largest, multi-nation airborne operation. The event incorporates almost every active-duty Army unit on Fort Bragg.
Hosted by the Army Reserve's USACAPOC, Toy Drop is possible only with the active support of Pope Field's Air Force Reserve 440th Airlift Wing and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Flight Detachment.
This year, USACAPOC has also had units in California, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, and Washington participate in toy donation distributions, spreading the event's spirit nationwide.
"I jumped with Sergeant first Class Randy Oler way back in the day and I left USACAPOC before Toy Drop came about and it's great to be back," said Jacobs. "He loved doing two things. He loved jumping out of airplanes and loved putting smiles on little kids faces and Toy Drop gave him the opportunity to do both. His vision has grown; these guys and gals out here are doing both things and he would be very proud, "he said."
In the coming weeks, USACAPOC Soldiers will deliver loads of toys to children's homes and service agencies throughout the country.
For more information about Operation Toy Drop or donating toys, visit www.optoydrop.net. Operation Toy Drop is also on Facebook, search for Operation Toy Drop and "like" the page for the quickest, up-to-date information on the event.