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For Mokena mom, a first Memorial Day since son’s death in battle

The yellow ribbons up and down Pam Toppen’s southwest suburban street have begun to fray.

Gone are the thousands of people who lined the route from Midway Airport to Mokena last June as Army PFC Aaron Toppen’s remains came home from Afghanistan, borne in a simple oak casket.

The mourners carrying fluttering American flags are a memory that grows more distant each day, as are the children who watched the procession with tiny hands held tight to their hearts.

But not quite a year since she lost her son in war, Pam Toppen has discovered something extraordinary: Her town hasn’t just politely moved on.

As Toppen prepared to mark her first Memorial Day since her son’s death, her neighbors and friends were making plans to replace the tattered yellow ribbons on her street to show he is not forgotten.

Mokena has named a portion of Townline Road near the family’s home PFC Aaron S. Toppen Memorial Drive.

The police chief still stops by Toppen’s home, just to check on her.

When the giant banner in Mokena that reads “PFC Aaron Toppen — our hero” started to fade, it was, mysteriously, replaced.

“I have no idea who is doing it — somebody in the community,” says Toppen, 55, a customer-service representative. “I absolutely love it. Tiny things like that mean so much to the family.”

And so does being invited to help lay a wreath in downtown Chicago at the Daley Center Plaza before Saturday’s city of Chicago’s Memorial Day Parade.

***

On a table inside the Toppen family’s blue-gray ranch home, a photograph shows a 5-year-old Aaron. He’s dressed in baggy military fatigues and his grandfather’s U.S. Army helmet. He loved watching the History Channel and always knew he would grow up to be a soldier

“He wanted to be infantry — right up front,” his mother says. “He wanted to be in the Army, and there wasn’t going to be anything changing his mind.”

Toppen enlisted after graduating from Lincoln-Way East High School in 2013. He’d been deployed since March 2014, his departure delayed by the death of his father, Ronald Toppen, from a heart attack the month before.

Toppen was only 19 when he was killed last June 9 along with four American Special Operations Forces members and one Afghani soldier in the deadliest instance of friendly fire since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. An Air Force B-1 bomber airstrike mistakenly killed Toppen and the others during a battle with insurgent forces in southern Afghanistan. An Army investigation blamed poor communications.

Toppen is the only soldier from Illinois to die in combat duty since last Memorial Day.

Pam Toppen says she still has questions about the circumstances of her son’s death.

But she says, “We could be mad all day long, we could try to drag it out, go deeper into it. But is it worth going through the next 10 years living the negative over and over again?”

Instead, she’s doing the only thing that makes sense to her — trying to preserve memories of her boy. Every day, she slips his dog tags around her neck. At her home, a photograph or some other memento always seems to be within arm’s reach. And she’s left Aaron’s bedroom untouched. His signed Paul Konerko baseball still rests on a shelf. Some of his books from childhood slant beside his bed.

“It’s his room,” his mother says through tears. “And it will always be his room.”

***

A sergeant and a military chaplain delivered the news that every military mother dreads in the middle of the night one night last June. Soon after, the gifts began arriving at Toppen’s home. At least a dozen quilts — sent from all over the country. Commemorative candles, keychains. A woodcarving. And cards and letters, too.

“Every day, there was something else at the front door,” Toppen says.

Sue Mierendorf, her next-door neighbor, had an idea for something more permanent: a bench in the garden with a few flowers, where Toppen could go and sit and think.

“When word got out that we were doing this, all the neighbors we spoke to wanted to have a part in it,” Mierendorf says.

Soon, nurseries and construction companies were making donations.

“That’s why a little bench with flowers turned into a whole garden with a fire pit,” Mierendorf says.

Toppen’s youngest daughter, Amanda Gralewski, 29, a nurse who lives in Lockport, says she’d like to move back to Mokena.

“Not only to be closer to my mom but to be in that community that has supported us so much,” Gralewski says.

Another daughter, Amy Toppen, 32, lives in New York City.

Gralewski says one of her brother’s high school friends went to the cemetery recently to visit the fallen soldier’s grave — after dark. A Mokena police patrol car pulled up. The friend apologized, saying he knew he shouldn’t be in the cemetery so late. The police officer told him he wasn’t there to make him leave.

“Actually, I haven’t had a chance to pay my respects,” the officer said. “I thought now might be a good time.”