It wasn’t exactly Santa’s sleigh flying across Fort Bragg, Dec. 7... but it was close.
More than 1,600 Soldiers braved cold, rainy conditions to parachute into the Sicily Drop Zone as part of Operation Toy Drop, a popular event that has steadily grown through the years to not only provide toys to Families in the local Fayetteville area, but serve as a multi-national training exercise.
This year military personnel from nine countries traveled to North Carolina to join forces with both the active duty and Reserve Army and Air Force units from Fort Bragg and Pope Field to participate in the annual event.
Some of the attractions Operation Toy Drop brings to the Army and Air Force are the ability to jump with military from different countries, share training techniques, and learn from each other.
“We get the benefit of working with foreign jumpmasters. What that gives us is the knowledge our jumpmasters can go anywhere in the world and perform because of this training,” said Col. Michael Barger, U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) assistant chief of staff.
Joining the United States in Operation Toy Drop were the countries of Chile, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Canada, which each brought along five jumpmasters.
“It’s good to participate because it builds relations within the Allied Forces and we can see how other countries go about their business,” said Sgt. Jared Baillie, a jumpmaster with the Canadian army. “It’s also great to be a part of this operation to help out needy Families. It’s an awesome experience for all of us to be down here.”
Baillie said the role the Canadian jumpmasters serve is to work with U.S. Army paratroopers to coordinate jumps for their assigned flights.
Getting 1,600 Soldiers into the air is no easy task. Providing airlift was a coordinated effort involving assets from the German Air Force, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.
The 440th Airlift Wing at Pope Field took the lead in planning the air drops, a role that gave Airmen valuable experience in planning and executing an operation of this size, said Brig. Gen. James Scanlan, 440th Airlift Wing commander.
“We go to war as a joint force and we need to train as a joint force — that’s part of the benefit and synergy of being here at Fort Bragg and working with our Army partners on a daily basis,” he said.
Since so many Soldiers want to jump in the exercise, most of the 1,600 slots were determined by lottery. Soldiers who are selected and complete the mission receive coveted foreign jump wings from the lead country that coordinates their jump.
“I wanted to participate because the opportunity to earn foreign jump wings is rare,” said Sgt. Meredith Cole, S4, 82nd Airborne Division. “Working with foreign jumpmasters is an interesting thing to observe and something I’m very appreciative of,” Cole said.
The price of admission to participate in Operation Toy Drop is just that — a toy. All toys collected are destined for local Families who need help this holiday season, and Soldiers were more than willing to donate.
Cole said she purchased a Baby Alive Doll because that seems to be one of the more popular toys for young girls this year.
Games, sporting goods, remote-controlled cars and bicycles were some of the toys purchased by jumpers and many brought more than one. Stefan Kaczmarek, a chief petty officer in the Swedish Navy, along with his colleague Capt. Dag Martinsson, packed a suitcase filled with toys as their donation.
“Back home we don’t have this kind of exercise that combines the military and community,” Kaczmarek said. “Being able to see how the military gives back to the community and the support it receives from people, that’s very unique and something we’ll take back to Sweden.”