HendersonvilleNews StoriesPete Zamplas

Local in Afghanistan getting holiday Toasty Toes warmth from hometown

By Pete Zamplas –

Harley Alexander is getting warm greetings from home figuratively and literally from various groups, including knitted ski masks to combat frigid nights in the field.

Private Alexander, who turned 21 on Nov. 5, is the lone WNC native in an Army advance “calvary scout” 24-man unit of the famed 101st Airborne Division. “He said he wanted something exciting,” his mother Deborah Alexander said. He got it.

“One of our young men is serving in harm’s way,” said Patricia-Lee Pirog, head for the past 10 years of Operation Toasty Toes that provides overseas troops with warming items not in their gear. “We have to make sure the soldiers in the field know there are people at home who care.” Her husband Joe Pirog, a former American Legion commander, was in Air Force military police in 1955-57 during the Suez Canal crisis.

Toasty Toes progressed from hand-knitted and crocheted slippers to ski mask “helmets,” helmet-lining watch caps, fingerless “wristlet” mitts, headbands and dickeys. “It is a grassroots way to assist in America’s fight against terrorism,” Mrs. Pirog stated.

Items are getting sent by Toasty Toes and many families of Alexander’s alma mater, Hendersonville High, and Apple Valley Middle School where his mother does student teaching while earning her teaching degree from Western Carolina University.

Harley Alexander’s unit has served in Afghanistan since Labor Day, his mother said. She said such a stint is usually for eight months, followed by three months away then eight more months in action. But with many troops expected back from Afghanistan by the new year, she has hope he may return sooner than scheduled. For military-security reasons, “he can’t say if he’ll be back.”

What is certain is warming items are crucial while he is over there, since “he can’t stand the cold,” Deborah said. She said mountainous Afghanistan is so chilly these days, temperatures often peak in the teens with nights frigid. She said Harley usually is in the field for seven or eight days in a row, then has two days of “down time.”

The tone of his letters and in phone calls (every two weeks) are more subdued than usual, making care packs and notes more uplifting, she said. “He doesn’t sound like himself. He sounds tired. He’s probably dealing with loneliness. He has good days, and bad days.” She is concerned about her son’s safety but also his spirits then upon his return home, “deprogramming” back into civilian life. “Emotional issues are the scary part.”

She added, “before he left for the Army, not much bothered him. Harley was very high-spirited. He’s always looking to the bright side. He’s the one to keep everybody’s spirits up, keep morale going. He was a team player, in (HHS) swimming or in lacrosse (for six years on club teams). In the darkest moment, he’d say ‘hey guys, we can do this!’”

The six-foot-two Harley swam backstroke and freestyle. He was HHS Student Body vice-president, homecoming king, acted, and was voted class clown. “Everybody knew him,” his mother noted. “ He is extremely outgoing, and communicates well with people of any race or age. He’d joke with his teachers and his principal (Bobby Wilkins).”

Harley was active. At 10, “he’d wander,” his mother recalled. “ Whenever we called him ‘Elmer,’ he knew to stay close and stick like glue.”

Harley is the most outgoing of four brothers. Eldest Matt Alexander, 24, is in Marine signal intelligence at Camp Lejeune, their mother said. Brothers at HHS are senior Nick Alexander-Wulfsberg and junior Zach Alexander-Wulfsberg. Deborah noted Harley’s father is deceased, and her parents Matt and Cate Alexander are among crucial role models. Both of Deborah’s grandfathers fought in World War II, and her uncle served in Vietnam.

Harley’s community service included bringing ice cream to Deborah’s special education students in their Special Olympics. She said, “he helped people, year-round. He held doors open, gave people directions. He extended himself, without expecting anything in return.”

He helped Shriners and Elks Club Christmas gift distribution, and with Toasty Toes as a class project of HHS English teacher Molly Flexon who was HHS’ teacher of the year in 2010-11. They raised $350 for yarn for mittens then over $500 a coin at a time, to buy paperback books for troops. Harley’s Toasty Toes appreciation certificate from four years ago remains on his wall at home. Mrs. Pirog concluded “Toasty Toes means more to him than we realized.”

Now others are helping Harley Alexander and his colleagues better withstand the Afghan chill. His mother has sent him care packs, but much more is on the way. “We’re extremely grateful for Toasty Toes and others’ help,” she said. “This is a piece of home going to him and his unit to share in. It’ll make him feel good knowing where it’s coming from, and the people behind it.”

Apple Valley Student Body collected soup cans, (long-lasting) hard candy, shampoo and other toiletries and wrote letters. Six boxes of goods went out, with more soon, Deborah Alexander said.

Hendersonville High efforts are triggered by two classes, one with seniors taught by Kaye Youngblood and the other Sabrina Sweeney’s freshmen crew. Youngblood taught Harley in history. As faculty host of the senior picnic, she got seniors to bring items to send Harley.

Sweeney’s brother Spurgeon Stepp, 25, is a Marine helicopter mechanic deployed three times. He just returned from Afghanistan. Mrs. Sweeney sent care packs weeks ago, and said “we’re thinking of them.”

Her freshman English class of 15 students is a unique “Excel class,” aiming to overcome academic or social challenges to excell in core test scores and study and “life” skills. This is Sweeney’s third year at the helm. She amplified a “character-building facet,” spurring students to “reach outside of themselves” with the three-week, school-wide drive last month. This was her class’ first-ever service project. The State Employees’ Credit Union packed them into shoe boxes and shipped them.

Excel students were “excited it’s for an alumnus who is fighting in Afghanistan,” Mrs. Sweeney said. “That made it a more personal connection. Each day, they’d ask what stuff we got.” A student who works at Fred’s Super Dollar “brought in nearly 20 packs of playing cards, after they went on clearance there.”

Dec. 3 is the latest to donate items to HHS or Apple Valley, or to send directly to Alexander’s unit at the military flat rate of $13, Deborah Alexander said. Harley’s address is:

PV2 Alexander

A Troop, 1-33 Cav

TF War Rakkasan

COP Wilderness

APO AE 09314

Meanwhile, she notes how a personal touch is the warmest of all. “A letter from people back home would mean the world to Harley. It takes a heart of gold, to write and send that.”

She added how it helps troops cope, when “placed in a situation at such a young age. Kids seem to think they know it all. It’s quite a change, and challenge. To get through it, you rely on your faith and the people who love you.”

For more on Toasty Toes, call Mrs. Pirog at 696-9777 or check http://www.operationtoastytoes.org.

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