Mokena soldier remembered as among ‘best who serve their country’
BY MIKE NOLAN email@example.com June 24, 2014 1:40PM
Illinois Honor Guard move the casket of Pvt Aaron Toppen to his final resting place at St. Johns Cemetery in Mokena on June 24, 2014. | Jim Karczewski/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 26, 2014 6:14AM
Hundreds of family members and friends heard Army Pfc. Aaron Toppen described as a “great man” and a soldier who was a “quiet professional” during funeral services Tuesday at Parkview Christian Church.
The 19-year-old from Mokena was among those men and women “who gave their last full measure to protect our freedom” and who “gave more than what was expected or required,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow told mourners in the Orland Park church.
Toppen, a 2013 graduate of Lincoln-Way East High School, and four other soldiers were killed in Afghanistan on June 9 while on patrol. Military officials said an air strike was called in after the unit he was part of was ambushed by the Taliban.
Snow said Toppen “represents the best of the men and women who serve their country,” and was a “quiet professional.”
The officer said Toppen was a soldier “who clearly understood the risks associated with his chosen field,” and that “loyalty and service were his touchstones.”
“Did Aaron know fear? Of course he did, but he did not wear it,” Snow said. “It did not shape his life.”
The general told Toppen’s family that he “cannot fully understand what you’re going through,” and that words of solace “pale in the shadow of grief” and are wholly “insufficient to describe the brave sacrifice Aaron made.”
Photos of Toppen in his uniform flanked his flag-draped casket, which after the two-hour service was borne by a black horse-drawn carriage to St. John’s Cemetery in Mokena. As the casket was carried from the church, the Chicago Police Department’s Bagpipes & Drums of the Emerald Society played “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.”
Members of the Patriot Guard formed flag lines at the church entrances, and dozens of members on motorcycles joined police vehicles in a procession from Parkview to the cemetery. Aerial ladder trucks from the Orland Fire Protection District and Tinley Park Fire Department hoisted an enormous American flag over the driveway leading to the church’s parking lot.
The soldier’s death was the second major tragedy this year for the family. His father, Ronald, died in February, and Toppen’s deployment overseas was delayed so that he could attend his father’s funeral.
Harlow said that “we know that Ron and Aaron are together,” in a place where “there is no war and there is no enemy.”
Family and friends noted Toppen’s yearslong desire to join the military. Both his grandfathers had been in the service — one in the Army and the other the Navy.
Parkview Pastor Tim Harlow said Toppen possessed a “patriotism that was born deep in his soul” at a very young age.
Before he went overseas, Toppen got a tattoo on his chest — a cross with two dog tags wrapped around it, representing his grandfathers’ service and the words “For those I love I sacrifice,” his uncle, retired Will County Judge Stephen White, said.
“From a tender age he loved his country,” White said.
Harlow said he wished Toppen’s family and friends were gathered at the church for a happier occasion and not facing the “very hard and painful reality that Aaron has left us.”
“We must do what we must do, and that’s honor the life of a great man,” he said.
The pastor recounted a story of a very young Toppen, he and a buddy riding their bikes up and down the block in their neighborhood with the song “I’m Proud to be an American” blasting at full volume from a boombox.
That was one of the songs played while a montage of photos of Toppen were displayed onto two large screens in the church, with such images as Toppen as a youth wearing his uncle’s Army helmet, and receiving his high school diploma.
Another uncle, Jack Winter, said his nephew “followed his dream to serve” his country, and was “picked to join a dangerous mission,” working alongside special operations troops because of the intelligence and mettle he displayed to his superiors.
Winter said that Toppen’s young niece had, since her uncle’s death, raised more than $700 selling lemonade, with the money being donated to the Wounded Warrior Project. He called on all in the church to make a difference and “do something kind and bold and brave,” and “do it quietly in Aaron’s name.”
Friends of Toppen’s talked to mourners about the things in life that he enjoyed doing the most, including fishing and listening to country music.
One friend from high school, Tom Garvey, said that while he’ll miss Toppen, “I know I will see him every time there is a flag waving.”
“Aaron, you’re my inspiration, my good friend, my fishing buddy, but most of all a true hero,” he said.