Mourners line up to pay final respects to fallen U.S. soldier
BY NICK SWEDBERG Correspondent June 23, 2014 4:26PM
MOKENA, IL - JUNE 23: Mourners pay their respects to U.S. Army PFC Aaron Toppen during his visitation on June 23, 2014 in Mokena, Illinois. Toppen, 19, was killed alongside four other American soldiers and an Afghan soldier in a friendly fire airstrike while they were engaged in a firefight earlier this month in Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 498719835
Updated: July 25, 2014 6:13AM
U.S. Army Pfc. Aaron Toppen’s dream was to serve his country, even from a young age.
As a child, he would dress up as a soldier for Halloween.
“It’s what he always wanted to do,” said Linda Suess, of Oak Forest, a family friend.
Hundreds of people on Monday attended the wake for Toppen, 19, of Mokena, who was killed June 9 while serving in Afghanistan.
Tiny American flags lined the street leading to Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, where the visitation was held.
Members of the Patriot Guard organization held larger flags at the entrances to the church, greeting those coming to pay their respects for the fallen soldier.
“He was just an all-around great kid,” said Debbie Witt, of Mokena.
She arrived with her husband, Kevin, who coached Toppen in park district basketball when he was younger.
Toppen was a 2013 graduate of Lincoln-Way East High School. While serving in Afghanistan, he was picked to serve on a mission with Special Forces troops. Toppen and four others were killed by friendly fire after an air strike was called to support them after they were ambushed by Taliban forces.
Those who knew Toppen well remembered him as a man who was close with his family and popular with his friends.
“Whenever he walked in, he always lit up a room,” said Melanie Adams, of Mokena.
Childhood friend Jason Boyda, of Mokena, played basketball with Toppen and was close with him when they were younger. Toppen was able to get along with everyone he met, Boyda said.
“I think there wasn’t a single person who didn’t like him,” he said.
A line of mourners stretched through the hall at Parkview Christian Church for nearly all of the afternoon and evening. Posters inside the church showed photos of Toppen throughout his life.
Toppen’s family would often exchange videos with him while he was overseas and tried to keep him close even when he was deployed, said Suess, who has known the Toppen family for 10 years.
“They had a life-size cutout that they brought to parties so he was still there in spirit,” Suess said.
Gov. Pat Quinn spoke briefly with reporters after meeting with Toppen’s family inside the church and said the soldier had a “servant’s heart.”
“There are no words in the English language or any other language” to express the deep sorrow with the loss of Toppen, Quinn said.
On Saturday, thousands lined the route from Midway Airport in Chicago to Mokena as a procession carried Toppen’s body to the Vandenberg Funeral Home in Mokena.
Toppen’s funeral service at Parkview Christian Church is to begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday. He is to be buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Mokena.