Lt. Col. Apollo Edmilao has faced many on-slaughts during his 33 years in the Canadian military, but this Christmas he faces a hoard so cherubic, so wide-eyed, he can only chuckle with delight.
As commanding officer of the Canadian military at the NORAD facility in Colorado Springs, the Langley-raised man is part of an international joint operation by armed forces, business, tech experts and more – the NORAD Santa Tracker. He’s been stationed in Colorado since summer 2019 and got to take part in NORAD’s annual tracking and escort of the fella code named ‘Big Red’ last Christmas.
“The calls from the kids are non-stop, filled with innocent wonder and amazement that someone is actually telling them where Santa is,” he said.
He’s glad to help make memories for children around the world.
“It was extremely hectic, but an incredibly fun and rewarding experience,” Edmilao commented. “There are so many volunteers that your shift is short and goes by so fast. On a normal year, you are in one of several rooms filled with 50 or so other people answering phone calls from kids and their parents updating them on where Santa currently is. To help, there is a big screen at the front of the room that shows the radar tracking of Santa. The mood is festive as everyone fields calls from kids and parents asking where Santa is.”
The phone line opens Dec. 24 at 6 a.m. Eastern Time. The annual tradition started as a mistake. The local newspaper there published a Sears ad telling kids they would talk to Santa, but it contained the wrong phone number. The number was actually a secret military phone at the NORAD station.
Picking up the phone that day during the height of the global Cold War was U.S. Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup at the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center, the predecessor to NORAD. He realized the error but made history in 1955. He told the child he was Santa and they chatted. After the call he assigned a duty officer to field subsequent calls that came in, giving rise to the annual tradition. NORAD, created in 1958, continued the tradition and has expanded its Christmas work.
There’s now an app, the latest addition to the Santa Cams that stream video as Santa makes his way around the world. Children can call 1-877-Hi-NORAD (1-877-446-6723). Some will be able to talk to call takers while others will hear a prerecorded message about Big Red’s current location. Tracking opportunities are also offered through social media on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, as well as on partner platforms Amazon Alexa and OnStar. The NORAD Tracks Santa website, www.noradsanta.org, features Santa’s North Pole Village, which includes a holiday countdown, games, movie theater, holiday music, webstore, and more. The website is available in eight languages: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Chinese.
The countdown to Dec 24 has begun! 🎅❄️ With the clock ticking, we at the Canadian NORAD Region have named our CF-18 pilots, maintainers and trackers charged with monitoring and escorting Santa through Canadian airspace!#NoradTracksSanta #RCAFhttps://t.co/gWHn70rlQS pic.twitter.com/OqQgDUprmF— Canadian Armed Forces (@CanadianForces) December 17, 2020
While COVID-19 will mean big changes to Santa Tracker, there will still be some military members staffing some phones this year. He said there can’t be the large call centre, but they will still do what they can.
“I can honestly say that I was extremely grateful and honoured to be a part of such a great tradition,” he said. “Being involved in answering calls from all over the world telling kids and parents where Santa currently is really restores some of the magic of Christmas for even us grownups.”
For Edmilao, Christmas 2020 will be spent with his wife, Tracy Walton, originally from Nova Scotia, and her daughters, Nicolle and Emma, in isolation.
“We are subject to the regulations and directives of the different American bases or wings we work in, as well as being subject to the regulations and directives of the states and counties we live in, Edmilao said. “For example, in Colorado where COVID-19 rates are presently quite high, we are under a strict state mandate that prohibits private social gatherings; it has also seen the shutdown of in-restaurant dining, bar closures and shuttering of other non-essential businesses.”
Christmas will be a smaller affair in the family but they can go out to local attractions like Pike’s Peak and the Front Range Mountains.
“Christmas is always a special time for our family, so I would typically spend it with Tracy and our family,” he said. “Military life sees us living in so many different places. With a lot of my postings having been in Ontario, and with our respective families on different coasts, it has been difficult to see everyone during the holidays. In the past, we have visited Vancouver or Pictou County for Christmas, but for the most part we stay home celebrating with each other. With all the travel restrictions this year, we will be taking advantage of technology and having more virtual get-togethers.”
Edmilao was about five when his family moved from the Philippines to Canada. His parents, Dong and Linda, still live in Langley.
He will be stationed in Colorado Springs until summer 2022. This time of year in Colorado brings lots of snow and cold temperatures.
“It’s definitely different,” Edmilao said. “Having grown up in the Fraser Valley, I remember lots of wet, foggy and green Christmases. I do remember a few white Christmases but nothing like winters in Ontario, or winter here in Colorado! I have great memories of Christmas in BC, but there’s something to be said about a nice blanket of snow around Christmas, dog walks along trails with snow-capped mountains almost close enough to touch, is pretty magical! It’s all what you make of it.”
The holidays, particularly spending them in a picture-postcard Christmas setting like Colorado, has him introspective.
“I reflect on my last year of leading fellow Canadians during an unprecedented time in history, I can’t help at think about home and what it means to me. While not perfect, Canada embodies the ideals that I personally hold dear and so I will continue to serve with pride – the Maple Leaf on my uniform – because I know it symbolizes so much to so many here, back home and around the world.”
NORAD is the organization created by the United States and Canada to protect them from external threats. It grew out of the Cold War with the Communist world and though the USSR has broken up and the world has changed geopolitically, NORAD still plays a role.
“The defence of Canada and the U.S. is NORAD’s number one priority,” he said. “The Command’s mission is constantly being refined to adapt to changing or emerging threats. It has changed over the past decades to include a focus on domestic airborne threats and the addition of a maritime warning mission.”
The Canadian unit within NORAD is spread over 14 locations in the Continental U.S., and Alaska, as well as Greenland. He is one of seven Canadian COs within the Canadian unit of NORAD but is the only one considered a base commander. Like Santa, NORAD is monitoring 24/7.
The 51-year-old is a logistics officer with a specialty in human resources so Edmilao not only looks after the military personnel stationed there but also their families. He is commanding officer (CO) of the Canadian Forces Support Unit in Colorado Springs as well as being the CO for the Canadian Armed Forces personnel in Colorado Springs.
He passed along warm holiday greetings to everyone back in his hometown and a final thought.
“I would ask all your readers to spare a moment to think of those Canadian military personnel who are deployed and could not be home this Christmas with their families, as well as those fighting right here at home as we work together to defeat COVID.”
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