When Alec Catherwood left for boot camp just four days after graduating high school in 2010, his father knew in his gut he would never see his son again.
After less than two weeks in Afghanistan, Alec Catherwood was killed by sniper fire on Oct. 14, 2010. He was the sixth Marine from his unit to die within 24 hours, according to media reports at the time.
On Monday, Kirk Catherwood -- himself a veteran of Operation Desert Storm with tours in Iraq, Kuwait and Korea -- shared his family's story with students at South Middle School in Arlington Heights to bring home the importance of Veterans Day.
"I knew (Alec) wasn't coming home," Catherwood said. "That's just the kind of person he was, doing everything he could to serve his country."
Catherwood and his wife, Gretchen, grew up in the Northwest suburbs and graduated from Arlington High School.
He talked about the difficulty of leaving his daughter and wife, who at the time was pregnant with Alec, to go to war in the Gulf, where he was an Army machine-gunner.
"Was I scared? You bet," Catherwood said, telling the students that real battle is nothing like video games. "War is a nasty thing."
He told them about a letter he got from a student, who said she was praying for his safety and wishing him luck.
"The best thing I ever got during the war was a letter from a young girl I didn't even know from somewhere in Indiana," he said.
He said the support of strangers at home was so powerful that he carried her letter in his pocket every day.
South Middle School is working with Operation Gratitude -- a national nonprofit that sends care packages and letters to deployed soldiers. The students wrote nearly 1,000 letters to soldiers that will soon be mailed all over the world.
"We know Veterans Day is so important to our nation, so we wanted our students to have a better idea of what our veterans have done for us and why we need to be so thankful," said South Middle School Principal Jake Chung.
Kirk Catherwood broke his spine in a fall from a helicopter and was medically discharged in 1992. He has been actively involved with his local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter ever since.
He told students about his relief at coming home safely and his need to get help for post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by seeing several of his friends die in war.
The Catherwoods raised their family in Byron, near Rockford, but after Alec's death they moved to Tennessee for a fresh start.
Now the Catherwood family has set up a memorial scholarship in honor of their son and is working on opening Dark Horse Lodge, a nonprofit retreat center for returning veterans.
When Alec was growing up, he never wanted to do anything except go into the military like his father.
Alec always had a smile and a helping hand for anyone who needed it, Kirk said. He told the students to smile and be kind to one another, because it could make a difference in someone's day or life.
"They say it's not the years in your life, but the life in your years. Alec was only 19, but he touched a lot of people," Kirk said.
Catherwood said his son was offered jobs that would have kept him out of harm's way, but he refused them, wanting to be on the front lines.
"People may call him a hero, but he was just my son," Catherwood said. "I strive to be more like him every day."