After retiring from the Army as a non-commissioned officer, Roger Beckley wanted to continue to serve.
Beckley’s most recent commanding officer title could be described as head elf, leading the Department of Kansas’ Operation North Pole at Fort Riley, on Dec. 7-8. During Operation North Pole, which began about seven years ago, American Legion Family members distribute hundreds of toys to children whose parents are either deployed or in the warrior transition battalion (WTB) at Riley.
“As a senior NCO it was our job to take care of families and soldiers, and that's what I continue to do,” said Beckley, who led a committee of five Legion Family members who planned and coordinated the two-day event. “That's what draws me into this type of work is fulfillment of providing some kind of a service to our heroes of today. If we can help them any way whatsoever, that's why I'm involved. It gives me a sense of fulfillment, that I'm still serving our nation by providing for our veterans through The American Legion.”
Beckley is a member of American Legion Post 39 in Abilene. Between 50 and 75 volunteers from around Kansas pitched in throughout the holiday event.
Children and their families were treated to snacks, games, camaraderie and — of course — a special gift from Santa Claus, aka Doug Evans, a jolly SAL member. While the kids took turns on Santa’s lap, a team of elves worked feverishly to prepare a gender- and age-appropriate gift behind the scenes.
Child after child left with a special gift and the parent with a feeling of warmth. In some cases, however, the generosity of Santa isn’t enough.
Two years ago, a 10-year-old girl was crying unconsolably after receiving her gift from Santa Claus. That moment left quite an impression on Terry Harris, who has been a part of Operation North Pole since its inception.
“I asked one of the elves, ‘See if we messed up with the toy or what happened,’” Harris said. “And so he went out and asked and she said, ‘I don't want a toy. I want my daddy back.’ It changed me forever.”
Harris remembers attending similar, but smaller scale, events when he was growing up in California. His father served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, while his mother was a Korean War veteran. Their service drove him to be part of Operation North Pole. But that singular moment inspires him to continue with it and drives him to give back to the military community.
“I hope in the long run that the child remembers us and remembers what the American Legion Family does,” said Harris, who also is the detachment commander for the Sons of The American Legion in Kansas. “She'll never get over it, ever, but I hope it does give her a little comfort to know that there were people who she didn't know that cared. That's what we're doing. We're trying to take care of our veterans and their families.”
For Mindy King, such American Legion Family activities provide her a way to give back and support military families after she medically retired from the Army. King, a member of Post 408 in Derby, is also in the Auxiliary and her husband is still serving. Their two sons, Michael, 7, and William, 5, are SAL members and helped out as elves during the weekend events.
“When I was medically retired, it was a little bit earlier than I was planning on getting out of the service,” said King, who was a Blackhawk crew chief. “So for me, this is a way to still continue working with soldiers and doing something to give back to the servicemembers and their families. It’s nice being able to see some of the families who I know get super excited and see their kids getting super excited whenever they come through to see Santa Claus. It's just a good feeling and it's just a lot of fun.”
In all, 682 gifts were distributed to Fort Riley children.
“Watching these kids come through and watching their faces as they see Santa is amazing,” Department of Kansas Commander Dan Wiley said. “We are going to change someone’s life today with what we do for them.”
Rodney Gilmore, who is in the WTB at Fort Riley, said his son, Mason, excitedly talked about Operation North Pole throughout the day. “It means everything and it helps my son believe and enjoy Christmas and the season,” he said. “It means a lot to me to see a smile on his face.”
Gilmore was grateful for the support shown by his comrades in The American Legion. “They understand and they have been there, and they understand how things are for soldiers like me at the WTB.”
Cpt. Brandon Williams, who commands Alpha Company at the WTB, was there with his three children, twin 7-year-old boys and a 3-year-old daughter. While he was excited about his own children’s experience he was grateful that members of his company could experience Operation North Pole.
“It’s a great opportunity for the soldiers that are here at the WTB to interact with others and spend time together outside of the uniform.”
Williams praised the Legion Family for putting on the event. “It’s a good way for them to pay back and for us to see that in the future we can still serve and help those in uniform.”
Originally, Operation North Pole started as a Legion Riders event. Now it’s a Legion Family event, drawing support from nearly every post in Kansas.
In the past, the Legion Family worked with Toys ‘R Us to obtain the gifts. With Toys ‘R Us out of business, Beckley worked with Shopco in Abilene. American Legion Family members raised money via various fundraisers throughout the year and Shopco provided a generous discount.
Wiley praised each of the four groups that make up the American Legion Family.
“The event represents what we are as an American Legion,” Wiley said. “On one hand, The American Legion is operating as a family and it shows what we can accomplish as a family. The Riders really take the lead with this. The Sons make a major financial contribution and buy a lot of the toys, and are also here to help. The Auxiliary is also here to provide assistance and refreshments. And, of course, the Legion is here.”
Wiley pointed out how the program is firmly rooted in the ideals of The American Legion.
“We are supporting our active-duty military and our children and youth, two of our four pillars. It defines us as an American Legion.”
As children ran around joyously, inspected their new gifts and enjoyed the celebration, Legion Family members beamed with pride. Fulfilling children’s wishes fills the volunteers with the spirit of the season.
“The excitement for me is seeing the children come in, and see the excitement on their faces,” Beckley said. “I’ve heard that some of the folks that are dressed up as elves, and I don't know about Santa and Mrs. Claus, but sometimes I think they get more overly excited than the actual kids themselves. I’m excited about the happiness that we as Legion Family people can provide for so many kids.”