Your uncle died so that stupid people can say stupid things

Your uncle died so that stupid people can say stupid things
Taylor Gralewski is comforted by her father Jerry as she breaks into tears during a funeral service for her uncle, US Army Pfc. Aaron Toppen. Getty Images

PFC Aaron Toppen fought and died so that stupid people could say stupid things.  That may sound ridiculous or flippant, but there’s no other way of saying it.

Aaron was just 19 years old when he was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan last year.

The above image of Aaron’s niece, Taylor has haunted me since the young soldier’s funeral on June 24, 2014.  Consumed with anguish, the child’s expression seems to demand an answer from each of us.  The question is, “Why?”

PFC Toppen wasn’t the first teen-aged soldier I saw laid to rest, nor, sadly was he the last.  It’s unsettling to bury these children of ours, cut down with their whole lives in front of them.

Amy Toppen lost her brother.  Pamela Toppen lost her son.  Little Taylor Gralewski, who looks to be about 10 years old in that picture lost her uncle.  What answer do we have for these people when they ask, “Why?”

Most likely, we will say that PFC Aaron Toppen died protecting our freedom.  I’ve said it myself, but saying it seems to ask more questions than it answers.

If our freedom is in jeopardy, from where is that threat coming?  What can we do as a nation and, more importantly, what can I do as an individual to insure that PFC Aaron Toppen’s death was not in vain.

Some would have us believe that sending more young men and women into harms way honors those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.  They champion war under the guise of patriotism.  Don’t believe that for second.  It only ensures a repetition of the cycle.

One answer came to me this past Sunday in a parking lot in Naperville, IL.  We have to make hard choices, just like Aaron Toppen did, in his short life.

Sometimes, the hard choice seems counter intuitive.  Like Sunday afternoon in that Naperville parking lot.


About 50 people had gathered to wish good luck to a Marine leaving for overseas duty.  20 of us were braving the 30-degree  weather on motorcycles and were parking our bikes and joining the group when a passerby told us to get out of Naperville.

He went on to make disparaging remarks about the U.S. military, an inherently unwise choice of words, considering the crowd he was addressing.

As one would expect, the interloper was besieged by leather-clad gentlemen and a veteran of our recent conflicts, clad only in shorts and a t-shirt.   The onslaught was brief, but intense, the attackers acquiescing to pleas for reason and sanity.

It was a teachable moment, but I’m not sure we all learned the same lesson.

Giving into anger and going after Mr. Big Mouth was the easy choice.  To me, the hard choice, the one that truly pays homage to PFC Toppen’s sacrifice was to do nothing.  To not worry about appearing patriotic.

It’s a paradox, to be sure.

There we were, honoring the service of a Marine, but called upon to live up to the ideals of our founding fathers by allowing a fellow American to talk trash about our military.

We’ve become a nation where we believe that the only people who love America are the ones who think the way that we do.  Am I right, Big Joe?

In my case, it’s true, but I think everyone believes that about themselves.

Our greatest freedom, in my estimation is not the right to bear arms, but the right to speak our minds.  The only way that works is if EVERYONE has that right.  Not just the people with whom we agree.

It’s difficult to hear words that make your blood boil and do nothing.  I was there in 1978 when Nazis marched in (Marquette Park) Chicago.   I can not say that I did nothing then, nor can I promise that I would do nothing now.  Like everyone else, I’m still a work in progress.

For better or for worse, in order for free speech to exist, we have to listen to all of it.  Including the worst of it.

Demigods abound, these days, standing on soap boxes, telling us that we need to take America back.  What they really mean is that we have to get rid of people who don’t agree with them.

America isn’t just a country, it’s an ideal.  It isn’t just the people who live here, but their ability to recognize each other as worthy of the rights and freedoms embued upon each of us in the First Amendment.

The truth is, Taylor, there really is no good answer to the question, “Why?”  The world seldom makes good sense and war makes no sense at all.

Like all ideals, it’s tough to live up to America’s.

Because of your Uncle Aaron, I will suffer the words of fools.  Because of your Uncle Aaron, I will accept that all get to speak their minds, no matter how inane or hateful their words.

Stupid people say stupid things, Taylor because they can’t help it.  They have a right to say those stupid things because of sacrifices made by people like your uncle.  It is only fitting that we honor those sacrifices by defending their right to be stupid.

That’s the hard choice.  That’s the choice I’d like to think that PFC Aaron Toppen would have made.

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