After losing "an amazing father and amazing husband more than I could ever ask for," Katie Stack says her year-old daughter, Mikayla, is her whole life.
The 19-year-old will bury her husband, Lance Cpl. James Stack, 20, Saturday. The Marine was shot and killed last week after being deployed in Afghanistan only a month.
Katie, who like her husband is from Arlington Heights, talked Tuesday in her mother's north Arlington Heights townhouse about the short years she had with James Stack.
They met when the 16-year-old Katie transferred as a junior from Prospect High School to Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights. James' parents taught him at home, but he was on the academy's track team, where both he and Katie were high jumpers.
James wrote Katie notes and gave her yellow roses. "I love the color yellow and I don't like red," she said.
When Mikayla came along, James' love for his daughter was obvious, said Katie.
"I would be cleaning or something and see them playing. I could see how much he loved her, and she absolutely adored him."
And Katie felt that love from James, too.
"He always took care of me. I had some medical problems. He was there by my side the entire time. He never left my side. It was amazing."
While the couple was very active running, walking or swimming together and even wrestling with each other, they did have favorite movies and video games.
A character in the Transformer movies inspired the name of their daughter, Mikayla.
And the video games were "Call of Duty," military shooting games.
"We would sit and down and play it," she said. "That was our thing. I'm one of the very few women who would play that game." The young wife insists she held her own with the Marine.
"We are both very competitive," she said.
When James left for Afghanistan, he didn't want to talk about the worst happening, saying she shouldn't worry, and he would come home.
"I made him talk about it," said Katie. "I sat him down and said 'It's war. Anything can happen, you know.' We told each other that we loved each other. No matter what happens we are never going to be apart. He's always going to be with me."
And that's how she gets through these horrible days: "I talk to him, tell him I love him, and I pray. Mikayla keeps me going. Just looking at her I know he lives within her. She's my world now. She's what I live for."
Another thing that helps is the Marine family.
While the men James fought with are still in Afghanistan, 10 Marine friends will be pallbearers. A special friend, Lance Cpl. Ryan Madura of Camp Pendleton in California, will escort the body. And 10 others, mostly wives and sweethearts of Marines, will come to be with Katie.
Katie and James are among the youngest couples in their circle, yet she is the first to lose her spouse.
"Those boys over there really need prayers and whatever else they can get," Stack says. "We're all getting through it together as a family. I really want people to know that he's a Christian and saved, and I can't wait to reunite with him in Heaven."
James called her on a satellite phone two nights before he was killed, and Katie has received at least 20 letters and knows more are on the way. She got three the day she was told James had died.
His message was, "basically that he loves us and can't wait to come home to us."
"It helps that he's a hero. He's mine and Mikayla's hero forever."
James Stack was a rifleman in India Company 3/5 Marines in the 1st division. They were serving in Sangin in Helmand province, considered one of the most violent places in Afghanistan, according to The Associated Press.
"He liked being a Marine, but did not like how much time he was away from his family," she said.
"He liked being a hero to me and my daughter. I was very proud of him. He liked that he was actually doing something in the world for America."
James Stack's mother, Linda, said she and her husband, Robert, share memories when they can't sleep at night.
"Katie and Mikayla are such a welcome addition to this tight family," said Linda. Katie considers James' 16-year-old sister, Megan, her own sister.
His mother said James was the kind of young boy who would jump up from his Happy Meal at McDonald's to open the door for an elderly couple.
He wasn't the most dedicated student, she said, recalling how he'd try to distract Megan from her studies, and spend his studying time texting to Katie.
Linda Stack is grateful for the dignified ceremony when the Marines brought his body home to Dover Air Force Base and said it helped give her closure.
"I was looking up to the heavens with a silly smirk on my face," she said, knowing that the box contained only her son's body.
"I was looking up to the heavens where my Savior and my son are."
The elder Stacks pledge their love and support to Katie and Mikayla.
"I'm so proud of you," Linda said to Katie. "Thank you. Thank you for loving my son. He needed to know that people outside our little niche loved him as much as we did."