Updated: July 23, 2014 6:36AM
About 30 minutes before the procession carrying the body of Army Pfc Aaron Toppen arrived at the Vandenberg Funeral Home in Mokena, heavy rain pelted those who lined Wolf Road as they waited to say goodbye to a hometown hero.
Then, as if on cue, the inky black clouds blew to the east. The rain stopped. Blue skies were seen between the white, fluffy clouds. And the sun began to shine.
“See, the sun is coming out because he was a good man,” Marilynn Madasdy, of Orland Park said.
Like many of the thousands who lined the route from Midway Airport to Mokena, Madasdy had no prior contact with the Toppen family. Yet she felt the need to be there.
“I’m here to honor Aaron. I didn’t know him, but I read it in the paper. (I give) my deepest sympathy to the family. I feel so sorry for the family. Why does the good Lord do something like this?” she said.
Toppen, 19, a 2013 graduate of Lincoln-Way East High School, died with four fellow soldiers on June 9, victims of what is called “friendly fire” in Afghanistan.
Brandon Thomas, 33, of Mokena, is friendly with Toppens’ sisters. He said his father, Ron, was a close friend of Toppen’s late father, also named Ron, who died earlier this year,
“I’m actually happy the whole town got together for this. It’s amazing how a little town like this can come together like this,” Thomas said.
One of Toppen’s sisters, Amanda Gralewski, her eyes red from crying, blew kisses to the crowds as she sat in the back seat of a limousine as it slowly crept down Wolf Road, pulling into the funeral home lot around 3 p.m.
A few hours earlier, Toppen’s family had stood in a row in a Midway Airport hangar, holding onto each other for support.
At about 12:30 p.m., a small private charter entered the hangar. Toppen’s casket, draped with an American flag was wheeled off the plane as the sound of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” filled the hangar.
Besides the music, there were sounds of grief: cries and wails. Toppen’s many friends wore blue t-shirts with the words “Freedom isn’t free,” on the back. And besides close family and friends, more than 100 members of the Patriot Guard, and several other organizations stood in silence, carrying large American flags.
The bikers made their way outside to join a procession behind the hearse and family vehicles, which spanned miles. Many of Toppen’s friends drove pick-up trucks caked with mud, their way of recalling one of his hobbies, driving his truck in muddy fields while cranking up country music.
“Mudding was one of his favorite things. There’s a big field out where his family lives. He’d go mudding there. Mudding and fishing, He was a real outdoorsman,” Thomas said.
Some wrote “We love Aaron” on their windows. Many of the bikers attached American flags and yellow ribbons to honor Toppen.
Joe Werner, a member of several military groups, said he was not surprised so many showed up to honor Toppen, including those who had never met the young soldier.
“Aaron was very well known in Mokena, and he was very well-liked. His family knew a lot of people in the community and to be honest, I think a lot of people came out because there haven’t been a lot of military honors going on, not a lot of homecomings. I think the people out here today, they’re here because they need something to keep reminding them of what they need to be thinking of and to be appreciative of what they have,” Werner said.
Students from Lincoln-Way East, had gone around Mokena in recent days, tying yellow ribbons on trees and posts in the village as a way to show that they were welcoming Toppen back home one last time, Thomas said.
Yellow ribbons in Oak Lawn, Crestwood, Midlothian, Oak Forest, and Tinley Park along the route used by the procession. Oak Forest had a huge American flag hanging high above the intersection of 159th Street and Central Avenue. Thousands of people, many holding American flags, lined the route. They tended to congregate at major intersections.
Bill Porter, of Posen and a former Marine, stood at the corner of 183rd Street and Harlem Avenue in Tinley Park, waiting for the procession. Most Saturdays find him cleaning the house and then taking his wife shopping. Not this Saturday.
“To me, it’s a tragedy. I don’t care what happened. The man died for his country and that’s all that really matters. Whose error was it? I don’t care. End of the story, five men are dead, five families are mourning,” Porter said.
Later, outside the funeral home, Christine Merenowicz, of Mokena, who served in Guam with the Navy, said, “I have to be here. My son, Peter, is a lance corporal in the Marines.”
Asked about how Toppen lost his life, she said: “It’s tragic, that’s what it is. It’s war. Accidents happen. It’s not perfect.”
Rod Stickle, of Mokena, is in the men’s auxiliary of William Martin VFW Post 725. He said the day “is all about people coming out and showing support for a hometown hero.”
“You don’t expect it to happen so close to you. Whether you knew him or not , it still means something. What means the most to me is to see all the young kids. This kind of thing impacts them. They see what it means to the community. It doesn’t mean they have to join the military, but it’s meaningful (that they know) what the soldiers are doing,” Stickle said.
Mike Stuckey, 64, of downstate Mazon, saw the support firsthand as he was one of the Patriot Guard members riding his Harley-Davidson from Midway to Mokena.
“It’s always great to see. It seems like patriotism has grown tremendously, especially in this area, the past few years. This was overwhelming today. There were thousands of people, from Midway to here. I hope this opens their eyes that, unfortunately, freedom isn’t free and this is one of the sacrifices that are made,” Stuckey said.
Former Tinley Park village trustee Carl Vandenberg, whose family owns the funeral home, was duly impressed: “This is a great tribute to our military across the board.”
Visitation for Toppen will be at Parkview Christian Church, 183rd and Wolf Road, from 1 to 9 p.m. Monday. A funeral service will begin at the church at 10 a.m. Tuesday. He will buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Mokena.
Contributing: Tina Sfondeles