MOKENA, Ill. (AP) — A soldier from Illinois who deployed to Afghanistan a month after his father died and a soldier from Ohio who was engaged to be married were among the five Americans killed in a recent friendly fire airstrike.
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 was one of the deadliest friendly fire incidents in nearly 14 years of war.
Family representatives of Aaron Toppen of Illinois and Justin Helton of Ohio told The Associated Press that military members came to their relatives’ doors in the middle of the night to deliver the news of the deaths.
The other victims have not yet been identified. Here is a look at the lives of Toppen and Helton:
Aaron Toppen, 19
Family members of Toppen remembered him Tuesday as a kind-hearted man who had aspired to a career in the military or law enforcement.
“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.”
It was the second death of a loved one for the family this year. Toppen, from the Illinois city of Mokena, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago, 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 Tuesday circulated a picture of Toppen as a young child sitting next to his father in a fishing boat.
“He was something somewhat rare in youth culture today. … In a word, I would summarize what he had as ‘class,'” Winter said of his nephew. “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.”
Toppen was the youngest of three children.
Justin Helton, 25
Helton had been in the Army since 2010 but had been in Afghanistan for only about two months, according to cousin Mindy Helton. It was his first deployment, and he expected to be home in about six months, she said.
She said her cousin specialized in dealing with explosives and was based out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She also said he was engaged. His parents live in Beaver, a two-hour drive east of Cincinnati, Ohio.
“He was a great boy, so full of life and outgoing,” she said. “He loved hunting and the outdoors.”
The 2006 graduate of Beaver’s Eastern High School was known to friends and family as Buck and was a quiet leader, Robert Day, his high school baseball coach, told WCMH-TV in Columbus.
Tim Hattle, who had known Helton since grade school, told the station that he messaged his friend on Facebook last week.
“He said time was really dragging over there. I said, ‘Just don’t worry. You’ll be home soon.’ And to be safe,” Hattle said. “Then I told him I loved him.”
Associated Press writer Lisa Cornwell contributed to this report from Cincinnati, Ohio.