U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Jake Paolucci, Company Gunnery Sgt. of Delta Company, 4th Law Enforcement Battalion, Marine Forces Reserve, fist-bumps a child while dressed as Santa Claus in Kotzebue, Alaska, Dec. 11, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Brendan Mullin)

U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Jake Paolucci, Company Gunnery Sgt. of Delta Company, 4th Law Enforcement Battalion, Marine Forces Reserve, fist-bumps a child while dressed as Santa Claus in Kotzebue, Alaska, Dec. 11, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Brendan Mullin)

Santa rides a C-130: Marines bring toys to Northwest Arctic Borough

More than 2,500 kids received toys from the Toys for Tots program.

Santa’s sleigh has many wildly varying depictions in popular culture, but few are likely as utilitarian as a Lockheed-Martin KC-130J.

Nevertheless, that’s what a group of Santas carrying out the Marine Corps Reserve’s annual Toys for Tots mission in the Northwest Arctic Borough used to get up there to deliver toys to thousands of kids.

“It went great. We were able to visit 11 of the villages up there in the Northwest Arctic Borough,” said Capt. Keith G. Lowell, a Marine stationed in Anchorage who oversaw the mission. “We were able to deliver toys to about 2,500 kids.”

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Marines operating out of Kotzebue used commercial flights and snowmobiles to get around the bitterly cold region as they dressed up and brought the donated toys to children across the borough.

“Seeing the amount of toys that came in was crazy. I wasn’t expecting to see truckloads, tractor trailers with pallets,” said Cpl. Brendan Mullin, a strategic communications Marine with Marine Forces Reserve who came up to take pictures of the event. “They loved it. I was taking pictures of Staff Sgt. Gomez, and he walked into what I believe was the Pre-K classroom, and you can hear the gasps. When you can see the smile through the mask, you know it’s a big, genuine smile.”

A U.S. Marine Corps KC-130J Super Hercules assigned to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, taxis the runway to deliver the snowmobiles and gear in support of Marines with Delta Company, 4th Law Enforcement Battalion, Marine Forces Reserve at Kotzebue, Alaska, Dec. 8, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Brendan Mullin)

A U.S. Marine Corps KC-130J Super Hercules assigned to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, taxis the runway to deliver the snowmobiles and gear in support of Marines with Delta Company, 4th Law Enforcement Battalion, Marine Forces Reserve at Kotzebue, Alaska, Dec. 8, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Brendan Mullin)

The Toys for Tots program is a program specific to the Marine Corps Reserves, Lowell said. It’s run since 1947, and donates 18 million toys every year, according to their website.

“It’s really an all-hands effort. The local community members were donating time and donating toys,” Lowell said. “It’s really just to benefit kids. The sparkle in the kids eyes, that makes it worth it.”

The half-dozen Marines who went up were primarily from Delta Company of the 4th Law Enforcement Battalion, a Reserve unit. Each Marine got a chance to don the red suit and (safely) interact with groups of children, Lowell said.

“Everyone got an opportunity to play Santa,” Lowell said. “Divide and conquer.”

Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152, or VMGR-152, helped transport the unit’s snowmobiles up to Kotzebue. VMGR-152 is part of the 1st Marine Air Wing, headquartered in Okinawa.

U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Federico Gomez, the motor transportation chief with Delta Company, 4th Law Enforcement Battalion, Marine Forces Reserve, dresses as Santa Claus before handing gifts to the students of Shungnak School in Shungnak, Alaska, Dec. 8, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Brendan Mullin)

U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Federico Gomez, the motor transportation chief with Delta Company, 4th Law Enforcement Battalion, Marine Forces Reserve, dresses as Santa Claus before handing gifts to the students of Shungnak School in Shungnak, Alaska, Dec. 8, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Brendan Mullin)

“VMGR-152 has been our partner for the past couple of years, coming out here from Japan,” Lowell said. “It helps them get the flight hours they need.”

For Mullin, getting to one the remotest human settlements on earth was truly remarkable.

What really stuck out to me was just how remote and small the communities are. I’ve never seen anything that remote, that secluded from mainstream American life, and they still get to get the toys delivered to them,” Mullin said. “Everyone was super helpful with helping the Marines out. There were a couple guys that would help us get around on snowmachines.”

The helping hand given by the locals helped them to accomplish their mission out there, Lowell said.

“Weather’s always an obstacle out there. We trained for it, we had the right gear. I can’t thank the locals enough.They would help us repair our snowmachines or lend us their snowmachines to make these deliveries,” Lowell said. “It kinda had this southern charm, so to speak. The hospitality up there, I didn’t expect. I really appreciate the locals helping out. I really appreciate the schools. Delivering the toys, it was a special moment.”

Santa’s other helpers

Elsewhere in the state, the Alaska National Guard, working with the Salvation Army, carried out the 66th annual Operation Santa Claus, delivering gifts to Buckland and Chevak, according to a news release. Guardsmen delivered gifts by CH-47 and UH-60 to the remote villages after staging in Nome and Bethel, bringing gifts to more than 650 children, according to the news release.

“It’s kind of hard for [the villages] to enjoy a Christmas like it used to be with all that’s going on,” said National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Sallaffie in the news release..“It means a whole lot [to the children]. Bringing presents out to the villages in these tough times, it’s pretty awesome.”

Villages for Operation Santa Claus are selected based on recent hardship, remote or isolated location, and whether or not the village has requested support. The two flights brought more than two tons of school supplies, snacks, and gifts for the children, according to the news release.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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