By Eve Meinhardt/ParaglideDecember 14, 2009
FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- It is an emotional time of year for many of the people who worked with and remember Sgt. 1st Class Randy Oler. Hundreds of paratroopers gathered at Pope Air Force Base's Green Ramp Friday with the toys they were donating as part of the 12th Annual Operation Toy Drop.
Members of the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command reminisced about how the now annual event began as a dream shared with friends over a can of soda while sitting on a truck's tailgate.
Oler envisioned an event where paratroopers could have a rare chance to earn foreign jump wings while helping children in local orphanages receive a present to open during the holiday season. Eight months later, in December 1998, USACAPOC hosted the first Operation Toy Drop. The event was small, but grew as the years went on.
Oler participated in and helped organize the first six toy drops. He was starting to prepare for the seventh, when he had a heart attack and died while performing jumpmaster duties April 20, 2004.
Becky Caldwell, who works at USACAPOC, said Oler is still a part of each year's Operation Toy Drop.
"Each year we make sure Randy still gets his wings," said Caldwell. "We go up to Arlington and put them on his grave after every toy drop."
This year's toy drop had 700 parachutes available, the most ever offered as part of the event. Paratroopers who donated a toy were entered into a lottery drawing for a chance to jump the next day and earn a set of Canadian or German jump wings. Anxious for a slot, paratroopers began arriving as early as 4 a.m.
Spc. Ross Murphy, Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, arrived at the lottery with a bicycle to donate after completing 24-hour duty. He said he felt it was important for him to be there.
"My chain of command encouraged me to come out," said Murphy. "I thought a bike was a good choice, because kids can get tired of toy, but they can ride a bike forever."
Weather prevented the paratroopers from jumping Saturday, but Sunday morning, the 700 airborne Soldiers took to the skies to earn their foreign jump wings. While receiving Canadian or German jump wings was a perk, many of the paratroopers said participating in Operation Toy Drop was about more than that.
Maj. Clift Slaughter, a reserve officer from the 325th Psychological Operations Company in Nashville, Tenn., travelled to Fort Bragg with a few of his Soldiers to participate in the toy drop.
"It is a great event and I'm really glad to be a part of it," said Slaughter. "We got a chance to help children in need and jump with our fellow paratroopers. There's not too much more you can ask for."
Canadian Army Capt. Chris Nobrega, Canadian Forces Land Advanced Warfare Center, presented Slaughter and other paratroopers with Canadian jump wings for their efforts. He said being a part of the event was an honor.
"It's great for camaraderie among the international airborne community," said Nobrega. "We get to jump with each other and see that we have the same jobs, just different locations."
In the end, it wasn't about the wings, the camaraderie, the chance jump, or even remembering a lost friend, it was about the children.
"All you have to do is picture the children smiling as they receive a wrapped package this year, having no idea what's in it and knowing that it's probably the only one they are going to get," said Willie Wellbrock, USACAPOC. "For that, I raise my hat to you, the American Soldiers, who are making it happen for the kids this year on Christmas Day."