RICHLAND COUNTY — With just a few days until children gather by the window to listen for Santa’s sleigh, personnel at McEntire Joint National Guard Base stand ready.
The base’s Aerospace Control Alert mission — comprised of the airmen and F-16s that make up the 169th Fighter Wing — is part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) that jumps into action should an airborne threat arise.
Next week, NORAD is expected to delight more than 22 million children by helping children follow Santa’s journey across the globe.
“We're all big fans of Santa,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Keith “Dolph” Miller, the ACA commander at the Richland County base.
“Santa is a pilot too and therefore a kindred spirit. We are thankful to be part of NORAD's watchful eyes this Christmas and take special pride in knowing that we play a part in his safe passage throughout the Southeast."
But the military’s mission in watching over Santa has come under scrutiny.
A children's advocacy group says an animated video on the NORAD Tracks Santa website injects militarism into Christmas by showing fighter jets escorting Santa's sleigh. It's a rare swipe at the popular program, which last year attracted a record 22.3 million unique visitors from around the world to its website.
The kerfuffle erupted two weeks ago over a 39-second video on noradsanta.org called "NORAD Tracks Santa Trailer Video 2013."
A 5-second segment of the video shows two fighter jets flanking Santa.
The Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood said the video brings violence and militarism to a beloved tradition. Others had similar criticism. And opinions have been flying on social media from both sides.
If you would like to track Santa on his journey, you can call 1-877-HI-NORAD or visit the NORAD Tracks Santa website at www.noradsanta.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.