By Zach Read Photos by Brian Strickland
Each December, for 18 years running, the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) [USACAPOC(A)] has conducted the annual Randy Oler Operation Toy Drop in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The event is the largest combined airborne operation in the world, and it serves a dual purpose: providing training for paratroopers and servicing needy children. Since 1998, Operation Toy Drop has collected more than 100,000 toys for children.
This year, medical operations for Operation Toy Drop were led by Sean Siler, DO, MBA, Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, and a physician at the UNC Hospitals Emergency Department. This was Col. Siler's first Operation Toy Drop. He found the experience rewarding for several reasons. Among them was witnessing his group, including medics, nurses, and physicians, work in real-world situations.
(In the video, Col. Siler and his group jumped from a C-17 at the Sicily Dropzone at Fort Bragg on Dec. 5. The jump was led by a 2-star general and followed by 1-star generals and colonels from the command headquarters, including Col. Siler, who may be seen jumping at the 39 second mark.)
“So often we train for the sake of training,” said Col. Siler. “This is training in support of real soldiers, on real operations, and we do not have to pretend or simulate, because it is the real deal. Being part of something that serves a dual purpose, training and operational, creates an efficiency that makes me feel like I’m being a good steward of our tax dollars and of my personal time.”
As Command Surgeon for USACAPOC(A), Col. Siler is responsible for the health and welfare of not only USACAPOC(A)’s 12,000 soldiers, but of all the Command’s operations, including Operation Toy Drop, where he was joined by 35 fellow Army reservists from three different units who volunteered their pre-holiday time to support the event. He was struck by the selflessness of so many soldiers whose two-week commitments made Operation Toy Drop possible.
“All have demanding jobs, family requirements and holiday events they sacrificed to support their fellow soldiers,” said Col. Siler, who shifted most of his clinical duties to the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s to allow time to support the operation. “My family understands how important Operation Toy Drop is for gathering toys for kids in need, and how important the honor for our participating paratroopers to earn foreign jump wings. The support of my family is echoed by that of the employers and coworkers of the hundreds of reservists that contributed their pre-holiday time to the event.”
Over the course of 10 days, more than 4,000 paratroopers participated, receiving valuable training and donating thousands of toys. All the toys collected were distributed to children’s homes and to social service agencies throughout the local community. Meanwhile, jumpmasters – the individuals who make sure the jumps are safe and send paratroopers out of the plane – from different countries were part of an exchange: the jumpmasters were trained on how airborne operations are done by the U.S. Army and how equipment is used, while individuals like Col. Siler, who were fulfilling their quarterly requirement to jump, received ‘wings’ from the jumpmasters’ countries, which is considered a high honor. Jumpmasters from seven allied nations were brought in to work with the U.S. Army’s elite jumpmasters.
“The team building and goodwill created amongst our partner nations will directly contribute to our ability to engage with those nations meaningfully in future operations,” said Col. Siler of the benefit of Operation Toy Drop to his Command. “My medical providers directly contributed to the operation by preventing injuries, maintaining a constant medical presence seconds from any potential injury, and rapid care and evacuation for the patients we did encounter.”
For Col. Siler, leading medical operations at Operational Toy Drop was a personal dream. In more than 11 years in Special Operations units, he has never earned foreign jump wings. He was always the medical provider on the ground enabling others to earn their wings or was deployed overseas during the event, precluding him from participating. This time, he had the honor of jumping and earning wings from Indonesia and the Netherlands.
Throughout the event, Col. Siler, who was one of two members of the medical team who is also a paratrooper, was impressed by the non-airborne soldiers.
“It was amazing to watch the progression in familiarity in these ‘legs,’ as we call non-airborne soldiers, starting as awe-inspired bystanders watching the first chalks fall out of the sky, to the last days of Operation Toy Drop when they stood with our visiting foreign jumpmasters critiquing the form of exiting paratroopers over a thousand feet above them,” he said. “Our medical team left with an appreciation of how hard the job of being a paratrooper is, and how they can support them more effectively as combat medical providers in the future.”
Col. Siler’s military career spans more than 23 years of Active and Reserve duty in the U.S. Army. The last thirteen years have been spent providing medical support to Special Operations units and commanding regular Army medical units. His four combat deployments have included time in the Republic of Georgia after September 11th, 2001, coordinating medical support for a $65 million Train and Equip mission for that country, as well as deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan with Special Operations units, providing far-forward medical support in those combat zones. He most recently commanded a mission in Africa, where his unit trained surgeons, nurses and medics on handling combat casualties.
In September, Col. Siler received one of the most prestigious honors in military medicine honors: the Order of Military Medical Merit (O2M3).
Recently, Col. Siler learned that he is going take command of the 94th Combat Support Hospital, a 248-bed field hospital located in Dallas, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas. It is staffed by about 800 army reserve soldiers that he will command for the next two years. He assumes command in June and will spend most of his non-UNC time there.
“Very few doctors get to do this and it is the equivalent of being the CEO of a similar-sized hospital, only you don't have a city to support you, and you make your own power, water, security, transportation, and provide housing and life support for every employee,” he said. “It’s humbling to have this opportunity.”
For more UNC Medical Center military news visit http://news.unchealthcare.org/military.
About Operation Toy Drop
The Randy Oler Memorial Operation Toy Drop - a Fort Bragg airborne operation tradition and collective training exercise - is held annually in early December. Operation Toy Drop combines U.S. Army Reserve personnel, Army paratroopers, dozens of volunteers and partner nation military personnel, more than a dozen Air Force aircraft and toys--all for what has become the world's largest combined airborne operation.