(Editors note: This is a continuous series that will explain what Operation Toy Drop is, who started it and the people who have operated it since the beginning. This week's topic is about Harris Luther, the Prime Knight manager for Pope Air Force Base and his connection to Operation Toy Drop.)
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - It started out as a simple question between friends - "Can you help me out'"
Randy Oler, then a staff sergeant, just needed help from his friend, Harris Luther, to get a range going for a small airborne operation involving a few paratroopers and some Marine Corps aircraft in 1998. Luther, who works on Pope Air Force Base just happened to be in charge of scheduling that week's events and penciled in Operation Toy Drop - little did they know a tradition was born.
The Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop, hosted by the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, has run for 12 years giving the opportunity for Fort Bragg's military community to help Families in need over the holiday season. By donating a toy, paratroopers are given the chance to earn foreign jump wings from allied soldiers around the world.
Operation Toy Drop combines the efforts of Army, Air Force and civilian service organizations in a truly unique event. Since its first year, the operation has expanded to include aircraft support from Pope Air Force Base's 43rd Airlift Wing, and welcomed the participation of Soldiers from Fort Bragg's XVIII Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division and Special Operations Command.
"It's a win-win situation," explained Luther. "You got the Army guys that don't get to get foreign jump wings very often, jump with foreign jumpmasters and oh, by the way, help kids by donating a toy. Then the aircrews, when they come in, get (the opportunity) to land in the dirt and fly certain routes, all the while getting guys out the door - which is all training. There's no losing process here at all, none."
After the first Operation Toy Drop, the Marine Corps unit that had supplied the aircraft wasn't able to make it and Luther again came to his friend's aid.
"I went down the hallway and told the group commander the situation, he punted up two airplanes and we put 500 bubbas out," Luther said. "The wing commander happened to see what was taking place, and when it was over with he came to me and said 'you tell USACAPOC we'll do this every year from now on, it's a Pope-Fort Bragg thing.' And that's the way it has been ever since."
Luther first met Oler during baseball and basketball season officiating for the games they worked together for more than 12 years. Described as big bear, Oler was one of those guys that you had to get to know, explained Luther.
"He loved to drink his Mountain Dew and had to have his cigarette with it. You had to get to know him, and when you got to know him - once you learned to know him - you loved him," Luther smiled. "(He was) just a true American and very caring person. You can't describe (Oler) in just one word. He truly cared about people. You just can't say enough good things about him."
Oler dreamed up the idea of incorporating airborne operations, foreign military jumpmasters and local charities and he was never one to shy away from a challenge. The first Toy Drop was very small and collected a small amount of toys, but in the years to follow the operation continued to grow. Last year, the event drew more than 2,000 paratroopers, 2,900 toys, and 24 allied jumpmasters.
One of Luther's most memorable Operation Toy Drop moments was on Dec. 13, 2003 when the operation was named in Oler's honor and then turned into a memorial after Oler's sudden death from a heart attack in April 2004.
Luther admitted that the year Oler passed away, Operation Toy Drop was in trouble. Oler did all the planning in his head, nothing was written down. Oler's friends and colleagues scrambled to make Operation Toy Drop happen that year and they succeeded.
"We weren't sure how we were going to get it done, but we knew eventually we'd get the airplanes and the guys would get their foreign jump wings," Luther said. "And the kids would get their toys."
"This was a project (Oler) took on without knowing what would happen or where it would go. And not only did he give toys to military Families here, but he also took toys to orphanages he knew about."
The impact on the Fort Bragg and Pope AFB community is huge, explained Luther.
Whether it was during Operation Toy Drop, on the baseball field or the basketball court, Luther described Oler as a man who would strive to help out any child.
"The only way to talk about Randy was that he was a good, true American, a Christian, and he cared about people," Luther said.