By Air Force Capt. Lauri Turpin
Special to American Forces Press Service
POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C., Dec. 24, 2009 – You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. But on Dec. 6, it was not a team of reindeer, but Air Force Maj. Jeff Dasher, a navigator in the 95th Airlift Squadron here, who guided the mission for the 440th Airlift Wing's C-130 Hercules that flew a group of "Soldier Santas" across the morning sky.
One might say he was born for this mission.
"It's the name," Dasher said with a chuckle. "I had to be on this flight."
His flight was part of the 12th annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop, a program sponsored by Fort Bragg, N.C., and Pope Air Force Base officials providing toys to needy children in the Fayetteville, N.C., area. The toys, donated by the participating servicemembers, 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, which brought participants from as far away as Germany.
Air Force Col. Merle Hart, 440th Airlift Wing commander, greeted the paratroopers as they checked their gear and marched toward the flightline to board Dasher's C-130.
"I'm proud that the 440th can be a part of this operation," 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 Airlift Wing, in conjunction with the Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing from Charlotte, N.C., and the Air Force Reserve's 910th 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 to participate. To enter the lottery, each paratrooper 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 Fort Bragg.
For more than 1,000 children, these soldiers and airmen flew in a promise to them that they would have a very merry Christmas.
"They have a massive wrapping session," said Air Force Lt. Col. William Whittenberger, 440th Operations Group commander. "A lot of the wives and families help out. It becomes a big party."
Whittenberger was mission commander for this year's Toy Drop and also flew 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 takeoff to drop," he said. "Our goal is five minutes between each air frame."
For Army Pfc. Caleb Wood, a 20-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Bragg, it would be only his sixth jump. Along with other members of his chalk, Wood waited in the passenger terminal shelter on the Pope flightline as other soldiers prepared their gear.
"It's my first year doing this," Wood said. "I bought a tricycle to support the event."
As Wood stood in line for his turn, Army 1st Lt. Judith Wood from 126th Transportation Company, 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 on the far side of Fort 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 mushrooms.
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 Capt. Andrew Scott of the Air Defense Battalion, donated a Candyland game.
"[My husband] 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."
(Air Force Capt. Lauri Turpin serves with the 440th Airlift Wing.)