The thunder of motorcycle engines followed by muddied up trucks — one which read “PFC Aaron S. Toppen, I Drive Your Truck” seemed to make a solitary horse being lead along without a rider, a banner behind carried by one of the Patriot Riders to bear his name, and one more to say “Thank you” to a heartbroken community from a family who could never express their love in words.
This was the scene on the Fourth of July leading the parade in Mokena, Ill. this year.
Sadly, one of our new neighbors had a front-row seat to witness all of the festivities as PFC Aaron S. Toppen returned from Afghanistan on June 21 to be honored as one of the five young men who lost their lives in the friendly fire on June 9.
Mrs. Diana Schnieder moved here from Illinois in May. She had just returned from going up to do closing papers on her home when she got the call that her granddaughter’s fiancé had been killed.
Fortunately, her boss allowed her the time off to go back up to be with the family.
Jackie Rozek and Aaron had been a couple for over 3 1/2 years. She is a college student studying physical therapy and works with special needs children at the Rec Center. They just graduated from Lincoln-Way East HS in Frankfort, Ill. in 2013 and then Aaron went to basic training, then to Fort Carson in Colorado.
They were planning a life together. But that all ended June 8. Aaron actually had sent a text to Jackie’s brother Dougie saying, “Take care of your sister. Going on dangerous mission.”
Aaron and four other men did not come back alive from that mission in Gaza Village, Afghanistan, apparently by friendly fire, during a security operation, according to the Pentagon. Officials said an air strike 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.
Soldiers wearing white gloves carried the case bearing the remains of Pvt. Toppen after it arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on June 12. Family members were present for the return of Private Toppen, which was “handled in the most respectful manner,” according to his sister, Amanda.
Mrs. Schnieder was there as his casket was lowered from the plane at Midway Airport on June 21. Patriot Motor Riders, military members, veterans, and friends and family awaited his arrival. The airport was jammed full of well-wishers and fans.
Then the processional from Chicago to Mokena, about 25 miles, began to take this young patriot home to rest. Over 1,000 Patriot Motor Riders lead the way, followed by the Mudders and then the hearse and family limos. Other cars made a parade miles long.
Yellow ribbons lined the roadside and banners draped across the road suspended by firetrucks flashing lights. People were crying and waving flags and carrying signs. It was all so touching.
As they arrived in Mokena, an amazing number of people were waiting wearing T-shirts that read, “1994-2014” on the front (his birthday is Sept. 28, 1994). On the back, they said, “Freedom is not Free.”
Early the next morning, Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Ill. was the location for the wake, as it had the largest capacity. More than 5,000 well-wishers stopped by. Even Gov. Quinn came by to show his respect. His two sisters, mama and grandma “Memuh,” along with Jackie stayed to hug necks all day, then had some private time until 10:30 p.m.
Photos of Aaron with his loved ones flashed on screens around the church. Those coming to show their last respects were from the military, so many veterans, policemen and firefighters from the area, family, friends and even many who didn’t even know him but wanted to honor this soldier.
Probably the hardest day was the actual funeral service on Tuesday.
From the church to the cemetery back in Mokena, the casket was placed in a carriage and pulled by a horse . . . the same horse that would finally lead the parade on the Fourth of July. A similar processional followed with the motorcycle riders, trucks, then limos followed to the St. John’s Cemetery.
The graveside service was followed by a 21-gun salute and over 200 blue and gold balloons were released.
Aaron’s earthly life may have faded into the yonder as those balloons drifted into the sky that day, but his memory will remain in the heart of a young girl who loved him for as long as she can remember. For now, she is devoting her time to the children at the rec center.
Folks knew the dedication that Aaron had to his country and to being a soldier. He wanted to be in the Army since he was six years old. And for his dedication, for the blood he shed. For the family left behind, and the love of his life whose tears were fortunately wrapped in Grandma’s arms, Pvt. Aaron S. Toppen has been awarded posthumous rank of PFC as well the National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with campaign star, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon and the NA.
“When I see a service person, I go up and thank them for what they are risking for our freedom,” Mrs. Schnieder said.