Mokena welcomes home soldier killed by friendly fire

Written By BY STEVE METSCH Sun-Times Media Posted: 07/23/2014, 06:52am
Array in Chicago Saturday, June, 21, 2014. | Jim Boyce/For Sun-Times Media

About 30 minutes before the procession carrying the body of Army PFC Aaron Toppen arrived at the Vandenberg Funeral Home in Mokena on Saturday, heavy rain pelted those who lined Wolf Road as they waited to say goodbye to a hometown hero.

Then, as if on cue, the black clouds blew east, and the rain stopped.

“See, the sun is coming out because he was a good man,” said Marilynn Madasdy, of Orland Park.

Like many among the thousands who lined the route from Midway Airport to Mokena, Madasdy had no prior contact with the Toppen family but said she felt the need to be there.

“I’m here to honor Aaron,” Madasdy said. “I didn’t know him, but I read it in the paper . . . I feel so sorry for the family. Why does the good Lord do something like this?”

Toppen, 19, a 2013 graduate of Lincoln-Way East High School, died with four other soldiers on June 9, victims of friendly fire in Afghanistan.

One of Toppen’s sisters, Amanda Gralewski, her eyes red from crying, blew kisses to the crowd as she sat in the back seat of a limousine that crept along Wolf Road, pulling in to the funeral home lot around 3 p.m.

A few hours earlier, Toppen’s family had stood in a row in a Midway hangar, holding each other for support.

At about 12:30 p.m., a small private charter plane entered the hangar. Toppen’s casket, draped with an American flag, was wheeled off the plane as the sound of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” filled the hangar.

Friends of Toppen wore blue T-shirts emblazoned “Freedom isn’t free” on the back. More than 100 members of the Patriot Guard and other organizations stood in silence, some of them carrying American flags.

Joe Werner said he wasn’t surprised so many showed up to honor Toppen.

“Aaron was very well-known in Mokena, and he was very well-liked,” Werner said. “I think the people out here today, they’re here because they need something to keep reminding them of what they need to be thinking of and to be appreciative of what they have.”

Visitation for Toppen will be from 1 to 9 p.m. Monday at Parkview Christian Church, 183rd and Wolf Road, with the funeral there at 10 a.m. Tuesday. He will buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Mokena.

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles

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