Mokena soldier among five killed by apparent friendly fire
BY JON SEIDEL AND MIKE NOLAN Staff Reporters June 10, 2014 12:47PM
Updated: July 12, 2014 6:23AM
Ever since he was a boy, Aaron Toppen wanted to enlist in the military.
His grandfathers served. And he came from a “proud military family,” relatives said.
Only one thing could postpone his deployment overseas this year — the death of his father, Ronald, who died Feb. 7. He wouldn’t leave for Afghanistan until a month later.
Now, Toppen’s family said they’ve been dealt a “double-hit” of grief. Toppen was among five American troops killed in an apparent coalition airstrike in southern Afghanistan, his sister said Tuesday.
Toppen, 19, died in what could be one of the worst friendly fire incidents involving United States and coalition troops since the start of the nearly 14-year war.
Amanda Gralewski, Toppen’s sister, confirmed his death for the Chicago Sun-Times. Military officials have not yet released the names of the service members who died.
Gralewski said a military chaplain and sergeant visited her mother’s home in the middle of the night to inform the family of Toppen’s death. Gralewski said she arrived before the military officials left and also spoke to them.
Gralewski said her brother, who graduated from Lincoln-Way East High School last year, died doing “what he wanted.”
Toppen enlisted in the Army in July 2013 and trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, an Army spokesman said. In November he reported to the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson, Colo.
He was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with campaign star, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon and the NATO Medal.
“Aaron was a funny, caring, loving kid,” Gralewski said. “He loved to fish. He loved his friends. He loved being outdoors. He loved his family. He would give the shirt off his back for anyone.”
The U.S.-led international coalition said the service members were killed in an apparent friendly fire incident, which an Afghan official said was an airstrike in the southern Zabul province. A statement said all five soldiers died on Monday but did not give further details on the attack.
“Five American troops were killed yesterday during a security operation in southern Afghanistan. Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
If confirmed, it would be one of the most serious cases involving coalition-on-coalition friendly fire during the war.
“The casualties occurred during a security operation when their unit came into contact with enemy forces. Tragically, there is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved. The incident is under investigation,” the coalition said in an earlier announcement.
Ryan Gleason, a 19-year-old from Frankfort, said he met Toppen at a bonfire about a year and a half ago. He said they shared similar passions — service of country, cars, motorcycles, trucks, shooting guns. And he said he was waiting to enlist in the military until Toppen came home.
“I didn’t want to be away when he came home,” Gleason said. “I wanted to be there to welcome him home and everything.”
Mike Frazier, a 19-year-old from Mokena, also mentioned Toppen’s love of fishing. But he also said Toppen talked about enlisting in the military throughout the six years they knew each other.
“That’s what he loved,” Frazier said.
Jack Winter, Toppen’s uncle, said Toppen enlisted in the Army before his graduation from Lincoln-Way East. Before reporting for basic training they went on a fishing trip to Canada as a graduation present.
Winter said the family was able to keep in close touch with Toppen through social media. The family doesn’t know much about what happened, though.
“There was no suffering,” said Toppen’s mother, Pam. “He was well qualified in everything he was supposed to do.”
She said she had spoken to her son before his mission and he had told her “he was going to be OK.”
“He (Toppen) was proud to be included on this mission,” Winter said, adding his nephew couldn’t relay many details to his family, but that “he let slip there was some danger involved.”
He was one of five soldiers taking part with Special Forces troops, “so I guess that makes him Special Forces too, but to me he’s just a 19-year-old kid.”
Family members were coming to the home through a steady drizzle Tuesday, some carrying in pizza or donuts. Family members said they hadn’t had much sleep.
Winter, of Chicago, said his nephew was an avid outdoorsman and “he was a very polite kid, he was very humble.”
Winter’s brother, Jeff, of Elwood, said his nephew hoped to use his military experience for a career in law enforcement.
Winter said there was “some trepidation” on the part of Toppen’s parents when he told them he was enlisting in the Army, but they completely supported the decision.
“This is a very proud military family,” he said.
Pam Toppen said that she went with her son to the recruiting office.
“We had to allow him to follow his dream,” she said.
The military is “keeping us informed as much as possible” about the investigation, she said, and that it could be as long as a week before her son’s remains arrive back on U.S. soil.
Jeff Winter said his family members were also praying for the families of the four other soldiers who died.
“We can’t forget them,” he told reporters gathered outside his sister’s home. “We’re not the only family suffering.”
Jack Winter said he never tried to dwell on the thought that his nephew could be in harm’s way.
“It seemed like such a remote, infinitesimal” possibility, he said. “I think there are risks for every family with a kid going into the military. People don’t want to focus on the worst possible outcome.”
On Jan. 9, the day Aaron left for Colorado in preparation for deploying to Afghanistan, his father posted an entry on Facebook declaring it one of the hardest days in his life. He asked for prayers on his son’s behalf.
“He is doing what he has wanted for a long time and for that I am so proud,” Ronald Toppen wrote. “We’ve made it through basic training and relocation to Colorado, but now it becomes real. Thank you soldier, you make me proud. God is with you, we are all with you. Please hurry home.”
Reading a statement from the family at an evening news conference, Jack Winter said the “loss we feel today is more difficult than you can imagine,” and that “the freedom to live in the greatest country in the history of mankind can come at a very dear price.”
Betty Winter, Aaron’s grandmother, said that “everybody was a little concerned” when he joined the Army, worried about his safety.
“They say the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” Winter, whose husband served in the Navy, said. “He took away our little guy too soon.”