ORLAND PARK – Hundreds of miniature American flags lined the grounds just outside Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park on Monday as mourners paid their respects to U.S. Army Pfc. Aaron Toppen.
The 19-year-old Mokena native was among the five American soldiers killed June 9 in a friendly-fire airstrike incident in Afghanistan. Toppen's body was returned home to Mokena on Saturday.
People were lined up inside the church Monday afternoon to pay respects to the fallen soldier. Visitation was from 1 to 9 p.m. to allow enough time for those who wanted to attend, said Tim Harlow, senior pastor of the church.
Toppen and his family were longtime members of the church, Harlow said. He said he expects people to turn out in the thousands for Tuesday's funeral service, noting an estimated 30,000 people on Saturday lined the route from Midway Airport to Mokena as Toppen's body was escorted back to his hometown.
“He was a well-loved kid,” Harlow said. “This is going to be a big deal.”
Toppen had always wanted to be a soldier, he said.
“If ever there was a young man who knew what he wanted to do with his life … it was Aaron. This was it. … He gave his life doing what he knew he was called to do,” Harlow said. “It doesn't make it all well but it certainly helps us understand. His family knows this is what he wanted to do. This was a sacrifice he was willing to make.”
Toppen had such passion for serving his country, Harlow said, he had a tattoo inked on his body that read: “For Those I Love, I Sacrifice,” accompanied with his grandfather's military dog tags.
Toppen's uncle, Jack Winters, described his nephew as a “sweet kid” with a “definite enthusiasm for life.”
“He had something I consider rare in these days in youth culture, and that's class. He was humble. He was polite,” he said. “He was loyal and everybody liked him. We were fortunate to know him.”
The support from the community has helped the family, especially Toppen's mother, Pam Toppen, during this difficult time, he said.
“That support from friends and family and especially from strangers has helped her get through this,” Jack Winters said. “The war is over for Aaron, but for my sister, in a sense, and her family, [the war] has only just begun.”
Toppen's funeral is scheduled to be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the same church. Toppen will be buried at St. John's Cemetery in Mokena.