Katie Stack will always be part of the U.S. Marines, even though the young widow and all of Lance Cpl. James Bray Stack's family know better than anyone the terrible price membership in this fraternity can extract.
"I can never not be," she said in an interview marking the first anniversary Thursday of the young Arlington Heights man's death in Afghanistan. "They're family. They helped me through more than I could ever imagine."
Linda and Bob Stack, whose only son was 20 when he was shot in combat a year ago, packed boxes this week for Marines deployed to that dangerous duty.
"I didn't know the cost of our freedom," Linda Stack said. "I didn't really appreciate my freedom."
For all the Stacks, the best part of this dreadful year has been Mikayla, James and Katie's charming 2-year-old who reminds them of her father.
"She looks exactly like him," Katie said. "Her face, her hair, the shape of her eyes, her smile. It's all James. She's a good kid; she listens to me."
Katie fell in love with James Stack when she was 16, and from then on they were inseparable.
"I got blessed," she says now. "It's hard raising a child by yourself, but I wouldn't change it for the world. She means everything to me."
Katie, who is 20 now, lives with her daughter in Palatine and is studying at Harper College. She plans to be a surgical nurse at a Veterans Affairs hospital.
"I know it will be really hard on me," she admits, "but all the vets and guys who go fighting for our country, I want to give something to them. I've always been interested in nursing."
Katie's best friends are two other Marine wives at Camp Pendleton in California who also have young children. One husband was deployed with James Stack; the other husband goes off to war in January.
"Without them, I honestly would not have gotten through this year," Katie said. "They've been through some of what I've gone through, and they knew James. They loved him like a brother."
Facing the anniversary of her husband's death two days after marking the date of the last time she talked with him, balancing school with caring for Mikayla, dreading her friends' deployment and attending a Marine ball in California -- all made for a difficult few months for Katie Stack.
The Marine balls, which celebrate the founding of the service, are an important tradition. James Stack was killed on the Marine Corps' birthday, but Katie went.
"I call them my brothers," she says. "They were all there. Some of the girls I knew were there. It was emotional.
"It was really good to see everybody, especially the injured Marines. A lot of them are really close to me. Many were hurt by IEDs (improvised explosive device). They're doing so great. I am so proud of them. They are strong guys. You have to be a strong person to be a Marine."
And while family and friends help Katie, and Bob and Linda are overwhelmed by the gestures of so many people near and far, it's their Christian faith that is most important.
"If we weren't certain that our son was in heaven, none of this would help," Linda Stack said. "They're adding to our joys. We know where he's at."
Bob Stack added: "The other way to look at it: It's his first year in glory."
Katie has faith, too. "Knowing that I'm going to see James again gets me through."
Katie moved back to the Northwest suburbs so Mikayla could live near her grandparents, who are all in the area.
She has filled the townhouse where she and Mikayla live with pictures and mementos. A bench she bought from a craftsman is carved with a large American eagle, the symbol of the U.S. Marine Corps, her husband's name, and "K.I.A. 11-10-10."
Mikayla likes to sit with a wooden box bearing a picture of her father. Katie got it in the spring at a memorial service for the 25 members of the 3/5 or Dark Horse battalion who died during the year and a half they were in Afghanistan.
Katie also sleeps every night with a stuffed animal her husband gave her.
Linda and Bob Stack cherish the contact with Marines who knew James and who tell them their efforts have dramatically improved life for the Afghan people living in the Sangin district where he died.
In James' honor, these men gave them a captured Taliban flag, with black writing on silky material that Bob says translates to "death to the infidels."
They hear stories of their son -- the bravery that made him pointman the day he was killed, and the sense of humor that kept his friends laughing in the worst of times.
They hear from other Gold Star families, area police officers and students Bob taught years ago. They see the honorary street signs that Arlington Heights posted near their north-side home.
A woman at the Arlington Heights post office told Linda in July that she knew James' birthday was coming up. She said she looked at his memorial card every day.
And when Bob went to rent a tuxedo for a recent Marine ball, one of the people who had helped him choose a suit for the funeral pulled out the memorial card and said, "I pray for your family every day."
As she did with James, Linda Stack home-schools their daughter, Megan, a high school senior planning to study radiation technology.
Linda is especially sad when she thinks about what his loss means to the young women in his life: His wife, Katie; his daughter, Mikayla; and his 17-year-old sister, Megan.
Megan was very close to her brother because the two were home-schooled together. She is a high school senior now, planning to study radiation technology.
"James said to me, 'You know, Mom, for being together 24/7 we do really well,'" Linda recalls.
One of Megan's ideas to help others like herself is to make teddy bears to give to brothers and sisters of fallen servicemen when they go to Dover Air Force Base to meet the bodies. She and her mother are working on the project.
"But everyone's been laughing at the teddy bears we have made so far," Linda said.
Bob Stack, who teaches at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights, pulls out the 2011 yearbook, dedicated to their son.
"I have no regrets," Bob said. "I am very proud of James, and we miss our boy."
Katie said she is doing all right financially, with help from the U.S. government, but she hates to see more families go through a year like the Stacks have experienced, and she expresses conflicts about the war.
"Of course they've built schools and done good over there. Is it worth a father and husband and a son? Is it worth my baby girl growing up without her dad? I don't know.
"I know they're doing good. I know it's important. They knew what they needed to do; they got it done. They are damn good Marines, the 3/5."