Fallen soldier from Mokena honored

ORLAND PARK – Some people walk through life wearing a cloak of fear.

Army Private First Class Aaron Toppen did not.

That's how the fallen soldier was described Tuesday at his funeral by U.S. Army Maj. General Jeffrey Snow. Toppen, 19, and from Mokena, was killed earlier this month in Afghanistan.

“Did Aaron know fear? Of course he did. We all do. But he did not wear it,” Snow said.

Snow said Toppen — who joined the U.S. Army just two months shy of graduating from Lincoln-Way East High School in 2013 — represents “the best of men and women who serve, who answer our nation's call.”

Hundreds attended the young man's funeral at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park. Thousands of others lined the route of the funeral procession as Toppen was taken to St. John's Cemetery in Mokena.

Toppen was among five American troops who died June 9 in southern Afghanistan from an air strike in one of the deadliest friendly-fire incidents in the war's history. Military officials believe the air strike was called in after the Taliban ambushed Toppen's unit.

The teen knew from an early age he wanted to be in the Army, Senior Pastor Tim Harlow said to Toppen's family and friends at the funeral service.

“There was a patriotism born deep in his soul from his earliest days,” he said.

Harlow recalled Toppen as a young boy riding his bike up and down the streets of Mokena as he belted out lyrics to the popular country song, “Proud To Be An American.”

Family and friends who spoke at the service described Toppen as an “All-American boy” who loved baseball, fishing and country music, and was proud to serve his nation.

Outside the church, Dustin Cammack, spokesman for the Illinois National Guard, said several retired and current military personnel attended the funeral to honor Toppen for his services.

“In the military, we're a brotherhood, and when one of our own falls, we give them the respect that they deserve,” Cammack said.

Cammack said he's been in the military for as long as Toppen has been alive. Toppen was just 6 years old when the war in Afghanistan first began.

“Today makes me reflect personally on what I do as a service member and how dangerous what we do really is,” he said. “This young man didn't have much time on this Earth and unfortunately he paid the ultimate price. We're here to honor his service and what he has given to us.”

Final goodbyes

After the service, Toppen's flag-draped casket was carried to St. John's Cemetery by a black horse-drawn funeral caisson. Members of the Illinois Patriot Guard Riders, along with police and military vehicles, led the funeral procession from the church.

Mike Stuckey, senior ride captain for the Illinois Patriot Guard Riders, rode his motorcycle alongside Toppen's casket. Stuckey called Toppen a "true hero.”

“He was a hero. People say that word a lot but it doesn't carry much weight,” he said. “When I say Aaron was a hero, I mean a hero. He paid the ultimate sacrifice.”

Thousands lined up along Wolf Road to say their last goodbyes to the fallen soldier. Several could be seen along the nearly three-mile route holding a hand over their heart while holding a U.S. flag in the other. Several nearby businesses changed their marquee signs to pay tribute to Toppen.

At the cemetery, Toppen's mother, Pam Toppen, was honored with an American flag folded by members of the Armed Forces — a custom in military funerals — after it was lifted from her son's casket.

"That's a powerful moment," Cammack said.

The service at St. John's Cemetery included the playing of taps and a 21-gun salute. Family and friends released yellow and blue balloons into the sky immediately following the service.

This year has proven to be an exceptionally difficult time for the Toppen family. Toppen's father, Ronald, died in February. The young soldier was scheduled for deployment that same month, but stayed behind long enough to attend his father's funeral.

Toppen was buried beside his father Tuesday.

Before Toppen was deployed overseas, Harlow said Toppen got a tattoo inked across his chest — a cross with two dog tags representing both of his grandfathers' service. The words, “For those I love I sacrifice,” accompany the tattoo, he said.

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