Paying their respects

Mokena gathers as fallen soldier’s body is brought home

Soldiers remove the casket of U.S. Army Pfc. Aaron Toppen from a hearse on Saturday,. Toppen was one of five American soldiers that was killed in a friendly-fire air strike June 9 in the Zabul province of Afghanistan.
Soldiers remove the casket of U.S. Army Pfc. Aaron Toppen from a hearse on Saturday,. Toppen was one of five American soldiers that was killed in a friendly-fire air strike June 9 in the Zabul province of Afghanistan.

MOKENA – The skies opened up and lightning flashed in the sky over Mokena on Saturday afternoon, but nothing could keep away the hundreds of people lining 191st Street and Wolf Road to welcome home the body of Army Pfc. Aaron Toppen.

Toppen was one of five American soldiers killed June 9 in friendly-fire airstrike in southern Afghanistan. The Lincoln-Way East High School graduate’s body arrived back on U.S. soil last week and was returned Saturday to Mokena with a motorcade of motorcycles, trucks and police.

Standing in the rain was Lynn Troester of Frankfort, mother of Air Force Airman Ryan Troester, a high school friend of Toppen.

“My son, Ryan, said just hours before Toppen was killed he received a Snapchat saying he was going into one of the deadliest areas,” Troester said. “They talked every day.”

She said the two graduated from Lincoln-Way East in 2013, and both had dreams of serving their country.

“They both drove trucks with American flags, and they’d go to country concerts with their trucks and flags and they were as proud as they could be,” she said. “They were good friends. They’d fish and hunt and they had a special bond because they both wanted to serve in the military.”

She stood crying as she reminisced about Toppen and her son’s times together. Ryan was unable to get leave from Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, so she and her other children came to show their respect.

“It’s very scary, very frustrating, very real; especially in the war we’re in,” she said. “It brings it home, it’s devastating. Yet, I’m very proud of them.”

Veteran Jeffery Viens said he and his wife had come from Glendale Heights as he placed U.S. flags in the ground along the curb on 191st Street on Saturday in preparation for the arrival.

“We would have come further if we needed to,” Robin Viens said.

The route from Midway airport to Vandenberg Funeral Home in Mokena was lined with thousands of yellow ribbons, American flags and people of all ages.

Boy Scout Troop 318 of Orland Park was placing flags at the corner of 191st Street at Wolf Road, where the motorcade would turn to take the last leg of the route to the funeral home.

“This man sacrificed his life for our country, our freedom,” 15-year-old Eagle Scout Ricky Aguinaga said. “I plan to go into the Marines and if I make the ultimate sacrifice for my country I’d hope people would come out.”

Aguinaga’s 11-year-old brother, Joe, said coming out to hold flags was the least they could do after all Toppen did for the country.

Stacy Clement with Project Patriotism handed out more than 500 flags to community members who gathered at 191st Street and Wolf Road.

“We’re here to honor Pfc. Toppen,” Clement said. “Our organization started to welcome home soldiers a year ago so people would know when a soldier was coming home if they wanted to come out to honor him.”

She said this is the second time in less than a month that they’ve honored a fallen soldier, and while that wasn’t in the organization’s original goals they will continue to come out and notify the 3,000 members of the organization’s Facebook page where they can meet. The group was present in Morris for the return of Marine Lance Cpl. Steven Hancock’s body May 28.

As the rain stopped and the sun started to shine again, the processional turned the corner onto Wolf Road to streets lined with people standing at attention, saluting or placing their hand over their hearts as the motorcade drove past.

Patriot Guard assistant ride captain Mike Cozzi, who organized the Patriot Guard to escort Toppen and his family back to Mokena, exited the funeral home after Army personnel took Toppen’s remains inside in with his family following, and said the family wanted to thank everyone for coming out.

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