FORT BRAGG, N.C. –
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — The skies were once again full of paratroopers as the Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop kicked off its 21st year.
This year’s operation had volunteers from Fayetteville and the surrounding areas, to include family members, friends and community members, collecting, sorting and distributing toys to 13 organizations throughout North Carolina.
As with every tradition, things change over time. This year, another country joined the long list of partner nations who have found both a training and charitable benefit of Operation Toy Drop. Jumpmasters from Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) participated in their first ever Toy Drop. And Jumpmasters from Brazil and Singapore made a return after taking a break for a few.
For many, this year served as an opportunity to train with jumpmasters from around the globe, and also a chance to earn their foreign jump wings. For others, the jump and the wings were an afterthought.
“This time of year is awesome,” said Sgt. Matthew Thompson, a paratrooper assigned here. “The best part of this time of the year is giving back, and this is one way for us to do it for people we’ve never met, and will never meet. It lets people know we care and gives us something fun to do while giving back.”
Brig. Gen. Rob Cooley, commanding general of the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, and a Wilmington, North Carolina native, mirrored his thoughts on the chance to help the area.
“We’ve had a rough couple of months with the hurricanes that hit here, so this is a great opportunity for us to give back to those that we live near and work with every day.”
From a legacy standpoint, this is exactly what Staff Sgt. Randy Oler envisioned when he orchestrated the event that now bears his name.
“Dad always loved two things, helping others and jumping, so this becomes the best of both worlds,” said Zack Oler, Randy’s oldest son. “He would give you the shirt off his back, and always would take as many jumps as he could. The thought of helping local children while jumping became a vision that I am happy to see USACAPOC carrying this tradition on.”
Although at times, it can be a little difficult to truly understand the impact this operation has within the community, one truly gets to see and hear the impact amidst the flurry of activity that is Operation Toy Drop.
“I remember one Christmas, our family was having a very bad year,” said Spc. Matthew G. Kreps, with the 118th Military Police Company. “My parents told me we weren’t getting gifts that year. Then about a week before Christmas, a USACAPOC Soldier showed up to my house with a dinosaur. That turned out to be my only gift, and I wouldn’t stop playing with it.”
“Years later, I still remembered getting that toy, and it became one of the main reasons I joined the Army. I have now done three Toy Drops and it feels so great to be the one giving a toy now.”
The full circle of this Fort Bragg tradition doesn’t end with Kreps.
Grayson Herrera, who attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics has been involved in Operation Toy Drop for about six years. Students attending the school have made a tradition of using their own money to buy toys and bring them out here on Lottery Day.
Seeing the impact this has on the community has changed his future as well.
“After participating in this for years, I’ve seen the Army community come together,” Herrera said. “It is really an incredible feeling. You have people who love the idea of jumping, but really want to help out the community. Everyone has great spirits and just has so much fun.”
The goodwill spirit of this yearly event encouraged Herrera to enter into a military career.
“I’ve done this for years and it showed me what I wanted to do once I graduated high school,” he said.
Herrera was recommended and accepted into the Air Force Academy.
In addition, new generations are being introduced to the tradition. A youth who is the great-grandson of a paratrooper who took part in the first Operation Toy Drop received an honorary set of German jump wings. It held a special meaning for his family since his father and grandfather, both paratroopers who jumped during Toy Drop, attended this year.
About 260 jumpmasters from 14 partner nations landed on Sicily Drop Zone for the 21st annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop. These jumpmasters led more than 2,000 paratroopers during the event.
Countries participating in OTD XXI included: Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Italy, Poland, Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, Latvia, Sweden, Colombia, Singapore and Brazil. Jumpmasters from Chile, the United Kingdom and Denmark also observed the training.
Operation Toy Drop was established in 1998, by then Staff Sgt. Randy Oler, a U, S, Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) Soldier. It was started as a training event, airborne operation, and a community relation event. After months of planning, the first Operation Toy Drop had more than 1,200 Soldiers participating and 550 toys donated. This year had 11 countries involved, and well over 4,500 toys donated.