FORT BRAGG, N.C. — On a cool and crisp early December morning with a hint of the winter to come in the air, hundreds of soldiers wait patiently in line at Pope Field's Green Ramp, each of them bearing gifts for children they would never meet. Some are zipped up in sleeping bags on the cold concrete. Some are huddled over donated cups of hot coffee. All of them are there for at least one reason: to participate in this year's "Lottery Day."
For one soldier, this would be his second morning spent outside waiting for what has become a Fort Bragg tradition.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Micheal Tkachenko, a military police officer with the 65th Military Police Company, arrived for the 18th Annual Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop Lottery Day at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 3 — a full day before the actual event. He and five other soldiers from his unit obtained their commander's permission to attend Lottery Day early as an exercise of esprit de corps, as well as an opportunity to give back to the community, he said.
"It's not just about yourself," Tkachenko said.
Largest Combined Airborne Op
Operation Toy Drop, hosted annually since 1998 by the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, collects toys to be distributed to children in need during the holiday season. Operation Toy Drop is the largest combined airborne operation in the world. Since its inception, it has collected more than 100,000 toys for the community.
In addition to Lottery Day, Operation Toy Drop collects toys in a variety of ways, including the annual Operation Toy Trot 5k race and via donation boxes at the post exchanges. Almost 1,000 paratroopers came out for Lottery Day, which offers airborne soldiers a chance to win one of 500 opportunities to jump with a partner-nation jumpmaster and earn foreign jump wings. In true lottery style, whether a soldier is first or last in line, his or her chances of being picked for a seat are the same. Although not required, paratroopers were encouraged to bring a toy and donate it at the event.
"If we get wings, it's an extra bonus," Tkachenko said. "But it's more or less about just being able to participate and give back."
Operation Toy Drop impacts the community in a lot of different ways, he said. It not only gives toys to underprivileged children, it also shows the community that the military is motivated about giving back.
"The community supports us and we support them," he said. "We're there to help them, not just collect a paycheck."
More Than a Paycheck
Army Spc. Andrew Wood, an MP with the 65th MP Company and a soldier in Tkachenko's squad, agreed that, for his squad leader, it has never been about the paycheck.
"He really cares," Wood said. "He's one of the [non-commissioned officers in charge] that would honestly catch a bullet for his [troops]. And he takes care of them anyway he can."
A self-proclaimed family man, Tkachenko's devotion to his soldiers and the military are derived from this title.
"I know some say the Army comes first, family second, but in my mind, Army is family," Tkachenko said.
Tkachenko waited almost 26 hours to receive a little blue lottery ticket. His chance to earn foreign wings didn't come through a winning lottery ticket, however. The enthusiasm shown by the first 10 people in line led Army Maj. Gen. Daniel R. Ammerman, commander of U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, to bestow the first 10 people in line with certificates of appreciation and reserved seats on a plane that will give them an opportunity to earn their foreign jump wings.
Wings or no wings, Tkachenko had no regrets about attending lottery day, he said.
"I don't come here for the wings," he said.
For Tkachenko and the rest of the soldiers who brought gifts and waited in line in anticipation of a Fort Bragg tradition, this time of year was an opportunity to bond with their fellow soldiers, give back to the community that has supported them and share in the spirit of the holidays.