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How the U.S. military helps families in need each holiday season

"Selfless service is important to each and every one of us."
U.S. Marines collect toys during the annual Toys for Tots drive on Nov. 29, 2020 in Miami, Florida. The items collected will benefit children whose families can't afford toys for Christmas.
U.S. Marines collect toys during the annual Toys for Tots drive on Nov. 29, 2020 in Miami, Florida. The items collected will benefit children whose families can't afford toys for Christmas.DAVID SANTIAGO / AP
/ Source: TODAY

It’s the season for giving back, and the U.S. military is doing just that.

Each year, branches of the military band together to help families around the world with traditions that began decades ago.

Here are three military-led initiatives that bring the holiday spirit full circle:

Operation Christmas Drop

Performed annually by the U.S. Air Force — and featured in a recent Netflix original movie — Operation Christmas Drop started as a humanitarian mission in 1952 when an aircrew noticed a group of people waving at them from the island of Kapingamarangi, an atoll in Micronesia. In response, the aircrew dropped a box of supplies attached to a parachute. That tradition has carried on year after year.

Performed by service members at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and Yokota Air Base in Japan, Operation Christmas Drop now includes everything from supplies to toys. It is the Department of Defense’s longest-running humanitarian airlift operation.

“This is a long-standing humanitarian tradition that allows U.S. and Japanese aircrews to maintain and develop operational readiness while working with our allies and partners in the Southeastern Pacific to deliver food, tools and clothing to remote islands,” Gen. Ken Wilsbach, Pacific Air Forces commander, told TODAY. “I’m thankful for all the donated goods from donors and charitable organizations who are helping make this a bright spot in an otherwise challenging year.”

All American Presents from Paratroopers

All American Presents from Paratroopers is an annual event hosted by the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Individual paratroopers from across the base donate a present and receive a raffle ticket for the opportunity to earn coveted foreign jump wings, which are badges awarded to parachutists jumping from an aircraft under a foreign commanding officer. Only a select number of raffle numbers are called and awarded to participants, creating a friendly competition among soldiers.

All American Presents from Paratroopers is an annual event hosted by the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina.Pfc. Jacob Ward / U.S. Army

The event was created to help the surrounding Fayetteville community with holiday gift donations while enhancing Airborne capability at the same time.

“It is important for us to give back in this way for two reasons,” said Master Sgt. Alex Burnett of the 82nd Airborne. “First, Fayetteville and the surrounding area are our home. This community is our community, and we want to make this holiday season as special as we can for those who are in need. Second, as paratroopers, selfless service is important to each and every one of us. I think many of us volunteered to serve in the hopes that we are making the world a better place.”

Toys for Tots

The U.S. Marine Corps has helped bring the joy of the holiday season to children since 1947 with Toys for Tots thanks to Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Bill Hendricks. Hendricks’ wife, Diane, had a few handcrafted dolls, and she asked him to donate them to an organization that supported children in need. When he told his wife he was unable to locate such an organization, she told him to start one. That year, Hendricks and the Marines in his reserve unit in Los Angeles collected and distributed 5,000 toys.

In his civilian job, Hendricks worked as an executive at Warner Bros. Studios. When his good friend, Walt Disney, learned of Hendricks’ new philanthropic initiative, Disney drew a poster featuring a three-car miniature train that is still used as the organization’s logo today.

Today, Marine Toys for Tots delivers an estimated 18 million toys to 7 million children around the world each year.

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