MOKENA – Even at a young age, Aaron Toppen had dreams of a career in the military.
He was so determined to be a soldier that just two months shy of graduating Lincoln-Way East High School in 2013, the 19-year-old from Mokena joined the U.S. Army. By March, he was deployed to Afghanistan.
Officials said Tuesday five American soldiers died in a rare friendly fire airstrike that hit a team of Afghan and U.S. troops conducting a security operation in the Zabul province in southern Afghanistan, possibly by a U.S. air strike. Toppen’s family said he was one of the five killed.
He was just 6 years old when the war in Afghanistan first began. His uncle, Jack Winters, said his nephew died “doing what he loved.”
“Aaron, despite his tender age of only 19 years old, was hugely patriotic, and at an early age, felt the desire and a need to serve,” Winters said. “Since the earliest conversations I had with him about career aspirations, he wanted to be a soldier.”
Aaron Toppen’s mother, Pam Toppen, stood just outside her Mokena home with family and friends Tuesday to speak to the media about her only son, with an American flag hanging from the house in the rain and a “Military Mom” flag in the front yard.
“He loved people. He loved being around people,” she said. “He was an all-around good kid.”
While holding a photo of her son in uniform, she said her last words to her son before he left were, “I love you and I can’t wait to hear about [the mission] when [you] come back.”
Army officials came to her home in the middle of the night Monday to inform the family that Toppen was among those killed. On Tuesday, the family’s driveway was filled with vehicles of family and friends who knew him.
Ryan Gleason of Frankfort, a friend of Toppen, described him as patriotic.
“[Serving in the military was] something he felt he should do,” Gleason said. “He had that honor, had that duty. That’s a debt we can’t repay.”
Toppen was someone who “would give his shirt straight off his back for you,” Gleason said, noting the two of them would even look for people to help during bad weather.
“We had pickup trucks,” he said, “and in many instances he would help people stuck in the mud and snow.”
Toppen’s uncle, Stephen White, former chief judge of Will County, called Toppen “an incredible human being.”
A woman named Amanda Gralewski, who identifies herself as the sister of Aaron Toppen, posted on her Facebook page Tuesday that her brother was among those killed in the attack.
“At midnight last night my mom’s doorbell rang and we received the news that my little brother was one of the five involved in friendly fire in Afghanistan,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “My brother lost his life doing what he always wanted to do since he was a little boy. He’s my biggest hero and the bravest man I know.”
Gralewski noted in her Facebook post that their father died in February – just one month before Aaron Toppen was deployed overseas.
Toppen was a 2013 graduate of Lincoln-Way East High School.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family,” Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 Superintendent Scott Tingley said in a statement. “For someone of Aaron’s age, this is a very tragic event.”
Monday’s incident is considered one of the worst such incidents involving United States or coalition troops since the start of the nearly 14-year war.
The U.S.-led international coalition said the service members were killed in an apparent friendly fire incident. A statement said all five soldiers died Monday but did not give further details.
“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.
• Shaw Media reporters Vikaas Shanker and Brian Stanley, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.