It was 6:30 a.m. Nov. 30 and Sgt. Brandon Blair, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, had been camped outside the entrance of Green Ramp’s Pax Shed 3 for exactly 24 hours.
Blair was the first in line out of a queue of 1,640 paratroopers who came that morning to attend the XXI Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop (OTD) lottery draw at 8 a.m. The annual event was perhaps one of the most anticipated by Bragg Soldiers for a good cause: in exchange for donating a toy to a needy child this holiday season, paratroopers qualified for the chance to jump out of an aircraft “Hollywood style” with an overseas military jumpmaster and got the opportunity to earn foreign jump wings without having to leave the country. There were 750 jump slots up for grabs that morning.
This was going to be Blair’s first jump since he had lower back surgery in August. His last jump was in March. It was his goal to prove to himself and his doctors he was physically well again.
“Some of the doctors said that I probably wouldn’t be able to jump again because of the severity of the back injury that I had,” he said. “But I got cleared to jump because I have progressed in my recovery faster than what he’s ever seen. A month after the surgery, I was already running 6 miles.”
However, this was not his first rodeo. During last year’s OTD, Blair earned Canadian jump wings. But beyond the prestige of possibly earning foreign jump wings, Blair said he’s just glad to be part of a program that gives kids in need a chance to have a better Christmas. His contribution was a Nerf gun.
“This is what we are doing to help the community — and to help out America — to push out toys to as many people as we can,” he said.
There were 11 countries participating in this year’s OTD and Cote d’Ivore being the newest foreign military addition — a coveted spot by the American paratroopers who waited in line for a jump slot at Sicily Drop Zone for that weekend. A total of 55 overseas jumpmasters participated during OTD.
The annual toy drop was a U.S. Army Reserve Command airborne operation and collective training exercise executed by U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) (USACAPOC-A). It was the largest joint combined airborne and collective operation. The OTD had two focuses: the first was to train Soldiers and the second was to provide an opportunity for Bragg Soldiers to donate toys to local kids who might not otherwise get a toy for the holidays.
Brig. Gen. Robert S. Cooley Jr., 353rd Civil Affairs Command commanding general, said those who had the opportunity to jump with an international jumpmaster that weekend are authorized to wear their foreign jump wings with their Army service uniform.
“It’s really neat to have the ability to wear a foreign set of jump wings on your uniform,” Cooley said. “This event is most special to me. The ability to work with some of the most professional paratroopers from our community here at Fort Bragg, but (also) the international world is certainly amazing. These are the best of the best paratroopers, jumpmasters, military free-fall (parachutists); these are the ones who do it for real all the time. Having the ability to be part of this is absolutely phenomenal.”
The international joint-training operation was an opportunity for different countries to learn from each other, Cooley said. At the core of the whole event, OTD’s was a training mission to boost Soldier readiness.
“We are absolutely doing an airborne operation today,” he said. “USACAPOC (A) is the lead. We’ve been planning it; we’ve been working it; we’ve been executing it. That’s the main focus. Doing airborne operations is important for us. Having our international partners is part of that operation … So we are absolutely building our readiness and training while we are doing this.”
Cooley shook hands with the first 500 Soldiers in line and said everyone of them were smiling and excited to be there.
“Opportunities like this is what folks come out for, they want to be able to give back,” he said. “They want to be part of an amazing organization and this is just one more way for them to give back to the community they support and live in.”
As for Blair? He managed to earn Swedish jump wings for this year’s OTD.