By Sophia Tareen Associated Press
MOKENA, ILL. — Among the five American troops killed this week during a friendly fire airstrike in Afghanistan were a soldier from northern Illinois who deployed a month after his father died and a soldier from Ohio who was engaged to be married.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the five American troops were killed Monday “during a security operation in southern Afghanistan.” Officials said an airstrike was called in after the unit was ambushed by the Taliban. It is one of the deadliest friendly fire incidents in nearly 14 years of war.
One of those killed was Aaron Toppen, 19, family spokeswoman Jennie Swartz told The Associated Press from the family’s Mokena home, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. Swartz said representatives from the U.S. Army came to the door of Toppen’s mother, Pam Toppen, in the middle of the night to deliver the news.
“Aaron was predisposed to serve. He was very keen to be in the military,” his uncle, Jack Winter, said. “He was quite proud to be there.”
Military representatives also went to the home of Justin Helton’s parents in Beaver, Ohio, early Tuesday to inform them of their son’s death, a relative said.
Mindy Helton said her cousin specialized in dealing with explosives and was based out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Justin Helton, 25, had been in Afghanistan about two months and was engaged to be married, she said. He had been in the Army since 2010.
“He was a great boy, so full of life and outgoing,” she said. “He loved hunting and the outdoors.”
As Toppen’s family and friends gathered at the light blue home, Winter described the high school graduate as a caring and funny man who was “something somewhat rare in youth culture today. … In a word, I would summarize what he had as ‘class,”’ Winter said. “So rarely now do you see somebody like that who truly does have class who’s polite, humble, loyal, who’s a kind-hearted soul, generous.”
It was the second death of a loved one for the family this year. Toppen was set to leave for Afghanistan in February, but his gravely ill father died that month and he stayed for the funeral. He deployed in March.
Toppen was a graduate of Lincoln-Way East High in Frankfort, Illinois, and loved the outdoors, especially fishing. Family members at the home — where friends continued to stop by and bring food Tuesday evening — circulated a picture of Toppen as a young child sitting next to his father in a fishing boat.
Military members provided few details of the attack to the family, Winter said.
“A military representative came to my sister’s home … and broke her heart,” Winter said. “It just tears your world apart. That’s the situation my sister is in.”
Toppen was the youngest of three children.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for Monday’s ambush in Zabul.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, said a battle took place between foreign troops and Taliban fighters in the Arghandab district, and a “huge number” of NATO soldiers were killed or wounded in the fighting. The Taliban often exaggerate their claims.
The other three victims have not yet been identified.