This is the third Christmas the Stack family has spent without their son, but this year they were surrounded by a few dozen young men who reminded them a lot of him.
Marine Lance Cpl. James Stack was killed in Afghanistan in November 2010, leaving behind his 19-year-old widow, Katie, a 1-year-old daughter, parents Linda and Bob, and sister Megan.
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This year, the Arlington Heights family spent Christmas making the day brighter for 25 Navy recruits from Great Lakes Naval Station. The recruits spent Tuesday at Christian Liberty Academy, eating, relaxing, calling family and taking a break from the basic training program they're set to graduate from on Jan. 4.
A police escort, with lights and sirens, met the group of recruits on their way to the Arlington Heights church and members of the Warriors' Watch Riders and more than 100 community members welcomed the recruits with flags, cheers and music as they entered.
"I was surprised at the reception. I couldn't believe how many people were there to thank us," said Kyle Stewart, 21. Stewart is originally from Houston, Texas, and said he hasn't been enjoying the cold Chicago weather but was grateful for a warm, relaxing place to spend Christmas.
Stewart said meeting the Stack family reminded him of the danger that comes with service.
"It could happen to anyone here, and that's scary to think about," he said.
For Richard Shipman, an 18-year-old from a small town in Arkansas, being away from family during the holidays and his upcoming Jan. 1 birthday is "excruciating."
He said spending Christmas with so many people far from home who care about him and want to help reminded him of why he signed up for the military in the first place.
"My graduating class had 35 kids and I wanted to prove someone could come out of that and change the world," Shipman said. "I want to make a difference."
Making a difference for the recruits who couldn't be with their families for the holidays is why Linda Stack said she and her family organized Tuesday's event.
"It was so wonderful to see their enthusiasm," Linda said. "Our son definitely inspired us to do this. This has always been a day for family and they are part of our family now."
The Stack family got a little bigger last Friday when Katie was remarried, to Marine Preston Ulrich. Their now 3-year-old daughter, Mikayla, was a flower girl and Megan was a bridesmaid.
Linda said she is still thankful for the suburban community and the larger military community that has continued to support her family.
Faith has also played a major role as the family moves forward, Linda said, something to be reminded of on Christmas.
"(Christ) paid the ultimate price for us, just like our son who paid the price for our freedom," she said. "To live without James is very difficult, but I know where he is and that our separation is only temporary."
Bob Stack said the tradition of hosting recruits on Christmas Day is one he'd like to expand on for many holiday seasons to come.
"It takes someone who is selfless to do what they do and we just want to thank them for that," he said. "We're so glad to do whatever we can for them."