Every Dec. 24, North American Aerospace Defense Command, known as NORAD, detects an unusual blip on its radars.
On Christmas Eve, an object flying "faster than twilight" measuring an estimated 75 candy canes long, 80 lollipops wide and weighing in at 75,000 gumdrops rockets through North American air space, according to data on NORAD's website. American F-22s and Canadian CF-18s quickly scramble to get eyes on the target.
As they fly alongside the object, a chubby man in a red and white suit lifts a gloved hand off the reins of his flying reindeer piloting his sleigh to wave at the jets. It's Santa Claus, a close ally, and NORAD will track him every step of his journey to deliver presents to nearly 2 billion children worldwide.
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NORAD's mission, to monitor and protect Canadian and United States air space, is not widely known to most American civilians and, especially, not understood by most children. But since 1955, when NORAD was first known as the Continental Air Defense Command, following and tracking Santa Claus' journey around the globe has become a long-standing tradition for civilians and service members alike.
It started when a young child accidentally misdialed a department store advertisement and called the unlisted number, which rang the CONAD's operational call center in Colorado Springs.
Col. Harry Shoup, the director of operations, answered and was surprised by the child on the other end of the line asking where Santa was. Shoup ordered crew members to check the radars for the big man's sleigh. The tradition has been carried on ever since and grown to become a critical annual exercise.
Now, an average of 1,500 people annually, the majority of them current and former service members, volunteer to answer as many as 150,000 calls asking about Santa's route as well as to provide social media updates and an elaborate tracker on NORAD's website.
Capt. Alexandra Hejduk was in her mid-30s when she changed her career and joined the Canadian Armed Forces. She eventually became a NORAD public affairs officer, tasked with educating and advertising its air-monitoring mission to the world.
That mission may be lost on some people, but when Hejduk's close friends, as well as her young niece and nephew, figured out her connection to Santa Claus, their minds were blown.
"Last year was my first year doing NORAD Tracks Santa, and the best thing was to be able to share it with my niece and nephew, who were at the time 8 and 6," Hejduk told Military.com. "The amount of street cred I got to tell them that I work closely with Santa Claus was amazing."
The beating heart of the operation is NORAD's call center in Colorado Springs. Volunteers get there starting at 4 a.m. on Christmas Eve, often with a spring in their step. Working in two-hour shifts, these volunteers, the majority of them service members from the nearby area, field phone calls from across the globe.
They're fueled by coffee, donated pastries and loud Christmas carols. It's not unusual for some service members to volunteer for multiple shifts.
Retired Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., who served as the commander of United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command from 2007 to 2010, told Military.com he saw the NORAD Tracks Santa mission as a major boost for morale.
"We have a lot of young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen who come in and volunteer before they go home for their Christmas, or they're here for Christmas and not able to get home," Renuart told Military.com. "They come out of that experience with just this huge smile on their face that they've made a difference, and it's touched them as much as it's touched those little kids they talked to around the world."
Preston Schlachter, a Colorado Springs native who graduated from the Air Force Academy and later came to work for NORAD as a civilian, told Military.com he has helped with the Santa tracking mission for nearly a decade.
In that time, he's heard any question you could imagine on the phone line. He's been asked what kind of cookies Santa likes, he's relayed the coordinates of the sleigh's location, he's heard from kids in the United Kingdom who ask for Father Christmas instead of Santa
He had one emotional call that brought a tear to his eye from a girl in the hospital who asked whether Santa Claus would still be able to find her, because she wouldn't be home on Christmas Eve.
"We're starting this event at four in the morning here in Mountain Time, right?" Schlachter said. "And I'm amazed at the level of energy, like there's no one ever dragging their feet to come in there."
A lot has changed since Col. Shoup's first phone call in 1955.
TV stations on Christmas Eve will now report NORAD's latest info on Santa's location. Children can chat with radar technicians and follow the latest updates on its website. Parents can download an app from the Apple or Android store to show the sleigh's route to their kids on their smartphone.
NORAD also posts updates on social media on Christmas Eve. Following last week's policy change for Twitter.com regarding posting live locations such as flight routes, some users speculated whether the Santa tracker would be allowed.
Hejduk told Military.com NORAD isn't prioritizing Twitter to share Santa's route this year.
"We're focusing on the social media that our audiences use, which is more Facebook and Instagram, and so that's really where the focus is," Hejduk said. "The website is by far the most important piece of it, because that's where the tracker resides ... It's not something that we're considering just because it's a different audience."
No matter where NORAD's information on Santa's route is shared, whether by phone, online or through television, all the service members Military.com spoke with said they've made either using or volunteering with the program a part of their family tradition.
Being in the military isn't an easy job. It's often filled with stressful assignments, career uncertainty, difficult decisions and frequent relocations around the country. But many service members have found joy, levity and recognition from their loved ones and strangers alike when they work in the call center and carry on Col. Shoup's tradition.
Renuart told Military.com NORAD's Santa tracking mission serves as a reminder to many in uniform that goodwill can come in many forms with the job.
"You can take a deep breath and step back and realize that there is still substantial good in the world," Renuart said. "You can, through your military service, bring an element of humanity and civility and compassion in a way that is very different from what you do when you put on your uniform and walk in during a normal duty day."
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
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