Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Code Name: Big Red – B.C. soldier with NORAD helps Santa get around the globe safely

The annual NORAD Tracks Santa program features a soldier who grew up in Langley

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.

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.”

.


Got a news tip?

Email: heather.colpitts@langleyadvancetimes.com
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

ChristmasMilitary

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao, in his uniform for the Royal Military College, spent Christmas as a young man, with family, including his sisters, Sarah and Teresa, at the family home in Langley. (Edmilao family/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao, in his uniform for the Royal Military College, spent Christmas as a young man, with family, including his sisters, Sarah and Teresa, at the family home in Langley. (Edmilao family/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Emma Walton, Tracey Walton and Apollo Edmilao visited a church on Kona during a family trip. (Edmilao photo/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Emma Walton, Tracey Walton and Apollo Edmilao visited a church on Kona during a family trip. (Edmilao photo/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East, and taking part in ramp ceremonies when soldiers bodies are returned to Canada. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East, and taking part in ramp ceremonies when soldiers bodies are returned to Canada. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Apollo Edmilao has served in various locales, including the Middle East. (Apollo Edmilao/Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Just Posted

Guy Barber in front of his jewellery store at 208 Mackenzie Avenue, circa 1915. (Revelstoke Museum and Archives photo 272)
Glimspes of Revelstoke’s past for April 8

Local history as recorded by the newspaper of the time

Downtown Revelstoke. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
LETTER: Finding Common Ground Through COVID-19

‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’

Alchemy Studio received a ticked from the RCMP on Thursday, April 8, for staying open despite provincial restrictions ordering yoga studios be closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Contributed)
Revelstoke yoga class fined for defying COVID-19 orders

The RCMP were called to the Alchemy Studio on April 8

The Royal’s 1959 visit to Revelstoke. (Photo by Revelstoke Museum and Archives #17)
PHOTOS: Prince Philip visited Revelstoke – twice

The prince died April 9 at the age of 99

B.C's COVID-19 dashboard shows the peaks and valleys of cases prior to the record daily report of 132 on April 9, 2021. (Dashboard image)
Interior Health has record day of COVID-19 cases

132 cases reported Friday, April 9, more deaths in Vernon hospital outbreak

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

A second case of COVID-19 has been confirmed at Vernon’s BX Elementary School. (Kerry Hutter photo)
Second COVID case confirmed at Okanagan elementary school

Exposure at Vernon’s BX Elementary happened April 6 and 7

People walk past the Olympic rings in Whistler, B.C., Friday, May 15, 2020. Whistler which is a travel destination for tourists around the world is seeing the effects of travel bans due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Adults living, working in Whistler, B.C., eligible for COVID-19 vaccine on Monday

The move comes as the province deals with a rush of COVID-19 and variant cases in the community

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
UPDATE: RCMP investigating after child, 6, dies at motel in Duncan, B.C.

The BC Coroners Service is conducting its own investigation into the circumstances around the child’s death

Highway 97 being converted to four lanes in April 1990. This photo taken in Lake Country. (Greater Vernon Museum and Archives Photo #14025)
HISTORY: How the old Highway 97 in Lake Country got new name

Pelmewash Parkway recognizes the First Nations history in Lake Country

RCMP display some of the fish seized from three suspects who pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act in 2019, in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - RCMP
3 banned from fishing, holding licences after overfishing violations near Vancouver Island

Mounties seized the group’s 30-foot fishing vessel and all equipment on board at the time

Flight with COVID
Another Kelowna flight with COVID-19 exposure

Westjet flight on April 5 from Kelowna to Edmonton

Most Read