Tracking Santa A Family Affair
By Air Force Master Sgt. Chuck Marsh
North American Aerospace Defense Command
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo., Dec. 27, 2013 On Dec. 24 at about 3 a.m. Mountain time, the more than 2,000-square foot Leadership Development Center building at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., transformed into the official NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center. Soon after, the first wave of the expected 1,200 volunteers -- many with children or significant others in tow -- began arriving for their shifts.
Mother-daughter duo Susan, right, and Cara Alexander help track Santa at the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Dec. 24, 2013. This was Susan's eighth year as a Santa tracker and Cara's first. More than 1,200 volunteers from across the base and community join to cover shifts spanning the 23 hours of annual tracking hosted by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, dating back to pre-NORAD 1955. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Chuck Marsh
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
When NORAD Tracks Santa, it's an event that begins at the top of the leadership chain with Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, who this year has his son, Army 2nd Lt. Charles Jacoby III, an infantry officer, visiting for the holidays.
"Having CJ here with me is great because I have so much fun with this. It reenergizes me," General Jacoby said. "Christmas is a family holiday and to be able to spend this time with my NORAD family and my son is just a terrific experience."
Lieutenant Jacoby, on holiday break from an infantry leadership course at Ft. Benning, Ga., said he was glad to be home for the holidays and to be able to talk with children and parents from around the world. After taking a few phone calls, the father-son team donned wireless microphones and conducted television interviews with several media outlets.
"This has been an awesome experience so far," Lieutenant Jacoby said. "This is dad's favorite time of the year and it's great to see him so excited about this. If I get the chance again to volunteer to do this, I definitely will and I will surely promote this program to my soldiers and peers when I get back to Georgia."
The Jacobys aren't the only family team to take to the phones answering questions about Santa's location, speed and number of presents delivered.
The mother-daughter team of Susan and Cara Alexander arrived at their stations at 4 a.m. with headphones on and ready to go. Susan, whose husband is a retired Marine working as a contractor at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., has been volunteering to track Santa for the past eight years -- more than half the life of her daughter Cara, who was working her inaugural shift.
"I heard about this program from a friend at church about eight years ago," said the mom of four, "so I had my husband research it for me and I volunteered and was immediately hooked.
"I just love it," she said. "It's exciting to have children and parents call in from so many other countries and to hear how excited they get when we give them the details about Santa – it’s is an indescribable feeling."
That feeling is mutual for daughter Cara, who, in only her first hour of what was to be a two-hour shift, had already answered a pair of calls from children in Japan.
"This is really fun," she said, "It's neat to hear all the other kids calling in from other countries and to see my mom so excited."
After eight years, Susan said she's been asked about every question you can get, to include if she was Santa or just an elf and how exactly NORAD tracks Rudolph's nose. Her favorite call though was from a young boy in India who called in just as Santa had completed one pass through his country, she said.
"He called and asked where Santa was," she said, "and when I told him that he had already passed through India once but was coming back he screamed into the phone, 'Oh no, I better get to bed!' and slammed the phone down."
While this is their first time tracking, Army Sgt. 1st Class James Wills and his wife Wanda have already been hooked and are planning on volunteering again in 2014.
"We moved here in July," said Sergeant Wills, who works at NORAD and NORTHCOM. "I heard about this program from one of my troops and pitched the idea to my wife. She agreed, and we've been here having a blast. This has been a great experience and has been cool to give back to the community, but even better having my spouse here with me."
Wanda said the experience has been interesting so far and cited one call that stood out to her.
"I had a 5-year-old boy call me and ask if Santa got his list," she said. "He thought he was on the naughty list and that Santa was going to pass him. I explained to him where Santa was in the world and that he has already delivered millions of presents and that he needed to get to sleep so Santa could come. He seemed to cheer up and that just made me feel great -- to hear the kid’s reactions."
The excitement didn't stop with the children on the phone lines, volunteers and leaders alike answered each call or email with a smile and a warm, “Merry Christmas.”
"It's a great story," said General Jacoby. "Every year we pull for Rudolph to guide Santa around the world and every year he pulls through. We make sure the ‘big red guy,’ as we like to call him, is safe and secure and able to spread his message of peace and joy across the world."