Peyton Toth (left) and AJ Keys (right) are reunited after nine months of Toth’s deployment.

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

mwaters@heraldandtribune.com

When 20-year-old Army Combat Engineer Peyton Toth arrives to his Washington County home, he’s usually met with his 6-year-old neighbor AJ Keys, who stays up as long as he can to see his best friend. But last Thursday — less than 24 hours after Peyton returned home from Iraq — the Army engineer got to surprise his “little brother”.

“Every time I come home, I usually go over there,” Peyton said, standing by the front office of Grandview Elementary School, just moments before he surprised AJ and his class. “I’ll get home late and I’ll either go wake him up or he’s still awake and I’ll put him back to sleep again.

“I’ve just always been close to him. He’s kind of like a little brother to me and I’m an only child. He’s just a very important person to me.”

Peyton left home on Dec. 27, 2016 for Kuwait, followed by Iraq, where the combat engineer worked to clear routes of any improvised explosive devices placed by the enemy. Now that he’s back in the U.S, the David Crockett alumnus expects to be stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina for the next year-and-a-half to two years.

But his mother and father, Debbie and Jeffrey Toth, are just happy to greet their son and share him with their loving neighbor, AJ Keys and his family.

“It was a good joy. It’s just good to see it,” Jeffrey said. “Since he was 5-years-old, his dream has always been to be a soldier in the U.S. Army. He followed his dream and now he’s living it. I’m just glad to see him come back and all in one piece.”

Peyton’s father wasn’t the only one who was happy to see the 20-year-old arrive home; AJ was following along with his class as his teacher read a story, but the moment he realized he was allowed to greet his neighbor and honorary “brother,” the boy went in for the hug he had been missing for nine months.

The solider also took a moment to talk to the class about the most prominent lesson he learned from his time in Iraq, which was put into perspective as Peyton recalled the kids he saw overseas.

“I’ve been in Iraq for the past five months and one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been there is when I was your all’s age, and I was growing up, I took a lot for granted from my parents. It’s shown me a lot,” Peyton said. “If there’s one thing you guys should know, it’s love your parents and don’t take anything for granted. There are kids over there your all’s age, younger and older, they go everyday and they ask just for a bottle of water as we go past. And it’s the most heart-crushing thing I’ve ever seen. It really shows you how much we have here.”

While Peyton and AJ took a moment to catch up, Peyton’s dad said being a soldier’s father has changed his perspective — and that even the words Peyton shared with the class touched his heart.

From left to right, Debra Toth, Peyton Toth, AJ Keys, Sandy Keys and Jeff Toth were all present for the reunion at Grandview Elementary.

“It’s sort of heartwarming that Peyton can take from his experience, to serve his country and see what the other country’s like, and come share with the class what we as Americans all take for granted,” Jeffrey said. “It makes you appreciate things a whole lot differently.”

On that list of things to appreciate, Jeffrey and Peyton both have one particular person placed at the top; Whether Peyton’s stationed in Texas or walking through the streets of Iraq, AJ is sure to be sharing in Jeffrey’s love for the Army soldier — even from afar.

“Besides being brothers in Christ, they’re just like brothers. They’ve always been there for each other,” Jeffrey explained. “AJ has always sent Peyton a live video on his birthday, even when he’s not home, to tell him happy birthday and that he loves him.

“That’s a blessing in itself that he got to have the little fella communicating with him — and thinking that much of my son.”