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Families remember US soldiers killed in airstrike

Thursday - 6/12/2014, 3:32am  ET

This undated Department of Defense photo provided by the Toppen family shows 19-year-old Aaron Toppen, of Mokena, Ill. Officials have identified Toppen as one of five U.S. Army soldiers killed Monday, June 9, 2014, during a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan, according to a family spokeswoman. (AP Photo/Department of Defense via the Toppen family)

SOPHIA TAREEN
Associated Press

MOKENA, Ill. (AP) -- The five American troops killed in a friendly fire airstrike included an Illinois soldier who went to Afghanistan a month after his father died, an Ohio man who was engaged to be married, a California Green Beret who only deployed in January, and Washington state man who loved the outdoors.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the five 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.

Relatives and local schools on Wednesday confirmed the deaths of Justin Clouse of Washington and Staff Sgt. Scott Studenmund of California. The other victim has not yet been identified.

Here is a look at the lives of Toppen, Helton, Studenmund and Clouse:

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Aaron Toppen, 19

Family members of Toppen remembered him 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.

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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."

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Scott Studenmund, 24

Staff Sgt. Studenmund of Pasadena, California, was deployed to Afghanistan in January and was set to return home in August. His mother is former eHarmony CEO Jaynie Studenmund, and his father is Woody Studenmund, an economics professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Scott Studenmund was a 2008 graduate of Flintridge Preparatory School in the Los Angeles foothill suburb of La Canada Flintridge.

Both schools confirmed his death Wednesday with permission from the family.

Studenmund was a "brave, virtuous patriot" who played football and ran track at Flintridge and loved military history and a good debate, the school said in a statement.

"When I think about Scott's service, I think of the Founding Fathers -- a virtuous man must be prepared to risk his life, fortune and sacred honor for his country," Headmaster Peter Bachmann said in the statement.

Though undersized for a defensive position, "he made our defense go," football coach and science teacher Glen Beattie said. "He was aggressive, quick and wouldn't let anyone block him or dominate him. He would fight through anything and would not let himself be defeated."

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