Plenty accustomed to being up and at ‘em before the sun each morning to brave the freezing temperatures for the sake of physical training, soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord got in formation last Thursday morning for a brigade-wide ruck march.
But on this particular dark Thursday morning, there was a different, lighter feel in the nippy morning air. Christmas lights and Santa hats and dogs dressed in holiday sweaters could be seen through the fog of condensation from the soldiers’ breath, while holiday music blasted through two large speakers just behind the 555th Engineer Brigade Headquarters, on Able Field.
It was the 15th annual Santa’s Castle Ruck March by the “Triple Nickel” Brigade, and soldiers from all subordinate battalions of 555th took part in the three-mile march, which started on Able Field and ended at the Northwest Adventure Center by American Lake.
Soldiers dressed the part and even brought along their families and dogs, while carrying toys they individually purchased to donate to Santa’s Castle. The 1,000-plus soldiers were required to march, but not required to donate toys. Still, most, if not all of them, carried rucksacks full of toys.
“I appreciate all the great costumes and I love the fact that we’ve got so many families and dogs out here, so we’re going to have a great time this morning,” Col. Nicholas Katers, 555th Brigade Commander, said to his soldiers before the march began. “The need this year is greater than it ever has been, so I appreciate all the effort you all have taken to go out, purchase these toys and provide them to your fellow soldiers and their families.”
Santa’s Castle, in its 19th year of existence, is an entirely volunteer-run organization based at JBLM that collects toys and gifts for children of Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine, Coast Guard, active National Guard and Reserve families experiencing financial difficulty throughout the Pacific Northwest each holiday season. Last year the charity serviced 837 families, which included more than 1,865 children.
Triple Nickel is, year-in and year-out, Santa’s Castle’s single greatest contributor, and Katers was correct in stating the need this year is the greatest it’s been by a long shot.
“This year our service doubled to 1,200 families and 3,700 kids,” said Santa’s Castle vice president of purchasing Anita Vargo, who was among the crowd gathered to cheer on the soldiers as they made their way to trucks at the adventure center where they handed off the toys.
“I think this year we went out to the units and the brigades and briefed people, and talked to a bigger range of people,” Vargo continued, on the cause of the greater need. “We’re also seeing a lot more mixed families now.”
Although the soldiers from Triple Nickel — or any donor to Santa’s Castle — won’t know to whom their gifts will go this holiday season, the need is still present among their fellow soldiers they rub shoulders with each day.
“The Army is a family; we try and take care of ourselves, of the Army family,” Staff Sgt. Henry Jones said. “It’s a good opportunity for us to come together as a collective unit and help out those who can’t do as much for their children as others.”
“As a soldier, they know somebody that is struggling. It’s soldiers helping soldiers,” added Vargo, who retired from the Army as Sgt. 1st Class. “Seeing this amazes me; the military gets a bad rap sometimes but all the soldiers are so supportive of each other. It’s good to see something very positive coming out of this.”
The brigade donated about 3,000 toys in last week’s march.
“This is our way of giving back to our own,” Katers said. “For some of the families that may not be able to afford to have presents for their children, we ensure that every kid wakes up on Christmas Day with presents.”
After dropping off their toys and sending them, the soldiers started the trek back to Able Field under the now-blue sky, with smiles on their faces and a little extra skip in their step.
“I like it because it’s really simple but it ends up having a pretty big impact,” Capt. James Perkins said. “Telling people to walk four miles and hand off a toy or two doesn’t require that much from us, but it ends up having a big impact.”