By MS. TIFFANY L. TOLBERT, STAFF WRITER
SSgt Shanelle Newman, the first African American female Grey Beret and now a Combat Weather Parachutist, was hesitant to go airborne during the early part of her Air Force career. That hesitancy quickly subsided once she learned of Operation Christmas Drop. Getting to “play Santa” would quickly become an incredibly rewarding experience.
Operation Christmas Drop is the world’s longest-running humanitarian airlift operation.
In the spirit of the season, Airmen drop bundles of toys over more than 50 remote Pacific islands that may typically receive aid every four to five months or perhaps only once a year. Toys are not the only type of aid provided, however. Other items include clothing, food (e.g., rice and canned food), vegetable seeds, fishing equipment, cookware, school supplies (e.g., pens, paper, and crayons), books, dental products, sunglasses, medicines, handheld tools, and coolers. A week before the drop, volunteer Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, civilians, contractors, members from partner nations, and families assist in picking up and sorting the donations from private donors and charitable organizations.
This annual, weeklong effort not only brings together a diverse group of individuals in the name of giving, but presents a training opportunity for Airmen. The aerial, low-altitude air drops enable aircrews to develop and maintain combat readiness for future, real-world humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief missions.
As in prior years, the 2020 Christmas toy drop’s planning and delivery efforts continued, despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team followed a plethora of precautions and the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: a virtual observer program was conducted with partner countries not attending in person; those participating in in-person activities were quarantined within their place of residence for 14 days and tested negative for COVID-19 before assembling with others; the donations were held in a sanitized location for a minimum of 24 hours; and participants wore masks and gloves while sorting the donations and building the bundles.
This past year marked Operation Christmas Drop’s 70th anniversary. This operation was first conducted in 1951 when an aircrew assigned to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam flew a mission to the south of Guam over the Micronesian atoll of Kapingamarangi. Upon spotting the island’s residents waving to them from below for assistance, the crew gathered items on the plane, placed them in a container, attached a parachute, and dropped the cargo as they circled back. Fast forward to 2021, that same spirit continued as the Air Force and partner nations dropped more than 55,000 pounds of supplies, benefiting about 20,000 islanders. That same considerate, giving spirit continues to propel Operation Christmas Drop year after year, season after season.