Tucked away in a corner of this sprawling Army post, a group of men and women, wearing red hats, are busy at work to bring smiles to children throughout North Carolina this Christmas season.
No. They are not Santa’s elves.
The red hats belong to parachute riggers from the 824th Quartermaster Company (Heavy Airdrop Supply), an Army Reserve unit based here. The men and women of the 824th have been packing hundreds of parachutes for Soldiers who will be jumping in the 15th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop.
Hosted by the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations (Airborne), Toy Drop offers Soldiers on current jump status the opportunity to bring in an unwrapped toy in the hopes of earning a coveted seat for the jump. They also get the chance to earn foreign jump wings from a participating allied jumpmaster.
From early November, riggers start packing parachutes for the event, according to Capt. Theodore Mataxis, company commander, who was once an enlisted rigger himself.
“It’s one of the things that we look forward to throughout the entire year,” Mataxis said. “… it’s one of the biggest airborne operations in the Army.”
Mataxis, a native of Southern Pines, N.C., said the 824th is the biggest airborne unit in the Army Reserve with nearly 300 Soldiers assigned fulfilling both peacetime and wartime missions. They regularly support USACAPOC missions up and down the East Coast and Toy Drop is one of those missions.
“You get to be part of something bigger than you,” he said. “It’s bigger than just Army training and readiness. It has to do with Families in the surrounding areas … toys that ultimately go directly to Families in need over the Christmas holidays. That’s the big picture reward.”
Metaxis also said the joint training with allied nations is also what makes Toy Drop special.
“I don’t know of any other operation where you’re going to have 10-plus countries all coming together to do the same thing and learning each other’s skills sets and exchanging those ideas,” he said.
It’s more than just packing parachutes. There is a much larger logistics piece during and after Toy Drop.
“It’s a two-part mission,” said Staff Sgt. Nick Mashtalov, mission rigger shop, noncommissioned officer in charge. “Part of us will be providing jumpmaster support … in the aircraft working with the allied jumpmasters and U.S. jumpers to ensure they exit the aircraft safely.”
Mashtalov, originally from Ivano-Frankovsk, Ukraine, now living in Myrtle Beach, S.C., said the second phase is getting the parachutes to the jumpers and then recovering parachutes after Toy Drop is over.
“You have personnel in the aircraft, at the departure airfield and personnel on the drop zone,” he said. “Anytime there’s an airborne operation, as far as the rigger piece goes, you have to always provide extra personnel. Anytime our parachutes exit the aircraft, we have to be present.”
Inspecting the parachutes falls on the shoulders of Sgt. James Hagans, a Mount Holly, N.C. native who has been rigging parachutes for 13 years.
He said each step in the packing process is methodical and each step has to be inspected before moving on to the next.
“Very few times does any type of malfunction happen, but when it does, it falls back on the whole shop,” Hagans said.
While most of the 824th riggers are part-time Soldiers, Hagans said he is confident of their abilities.
“I’ve got guys in my shop that I’ll put against an active duty rigger any day,” he said.
One of those is Spc. Joshua Medina, a Boca Raton, Fla. native, who has been rigging parachutes for four years, three of those on active duty. He said last year was his first experience with Toy Drop.
“I thought it was pretty cool to see an operation on that large of a scale with different units cooperating with different countries. It was pretty awesome to see. It’s good to know we are doing something to benefit charity,” he said.