Longtime friend remembers fallen soldier
By Mike Nolan firstname.lastname@example.org June 11, 2014 5:40PM
A sign Wednesday outside the Mokena Fire Protection District station on Wolf Road in Mokena pays tribute to fallen soldier Aaron Toppen. | Mike Nolan/Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 13, 2014 5:00PM
As Mokena on Wednesday expressed its collective grief over the loss of Army Pvt. Aaron Toppen, James Triolo remembered a friend he had known since they played T-ball together and whom he watched go overseas wearing the uniform of a soldier.
They sat next to each other during their graduation last year from Lincoln-Way East High School, and Triolo said he and Toppen had been “inseparable.”
“Me and him were literally brothers,” and Toppen was like “another son to my family,” Triolo said.
Toppen, 19, was among five American troops killed Monday, apparently by friendly fire, during a security operation in southern Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. Officials said an airstrike was called in after the unit was ambushed by the Taliban. It was one of the deadliest friendly fire incidents in the nearly 14-year war.
Studying to become a paramedic at a Michigan college, Triolo learned of his friend’s death Monday morning, just before a round of final exams. Like Toppen’s family, Triolo said he fully supported his friend’s decision, knowing that military service was long his goal.
“Everyone worries about someone close to him joining the military, but it’s always what he wanted to do, serve his country,” he said. “He did it better than anybody I knew.”
Triolo said he and Toppen went to different grade schools but would hang out “every single day,” fishing every chance they had and talking about anything.
“We would go fishing anywhere there was water,” he said.
In high school, the pair had “almost every single class together,” Triolo said, and their girlfriends became best of friends.
Triolo said he and Toppen were “always there for each other,” offering support when life threw a curveball or a major tragedy hit, such as the illness of Toppen’s father who died in February. Toppen’s deployment overseas was delayed as a result.
“Through his dad’s entire ordeal I was there for him,” Triolo said.
As Toppen’s family grieved his loss and awaited the return of his remains from overseas, the community was showing its support for his family.
The American flag outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 725 on Wolf Road was lowered to half-staff, while a sign bore the message “our hearts and prayers go out to the Toppen family.” Similar condolences were displayed at a sign across the street at a Mokena Fire Protection District station.
Jim Hogan, VFW post commander, said he has been in touch with the family, as have village officials, offering aid.
“The village and the Mokena VFW will do whatever we can to help the family out,” he said. “There’s nothing we won’t do at this point.”