A warm meal. A huge thank you. And a sharing of the Gospel.
That's what a group of 50 recruits from Great Lakes Naval Station, some far away from their families, received for Christmas on Wednesday at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights,
The group, hosted by the Northwest Bible Church, arrived in buses while escorted by the Warriors' Watch Riders to the church, where they were welcomed by the family of Marine Lance Cpl. James Bray Stack,
Stack, 20, of Arlington Heights, died Nov. 10, 2010, after being shot while on foot patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Since then, his family has devoted itself to helping other service members. Last year, his parents, Robert and Linda, began what seems to have become a tradition by welcoming 25 recruits during Christmas. This year, the number grew to 50. And so did the number of people stepping up to help.
The event featured brunch prepared by Chef Tim Almy, while the recruits were given a chance to talk by cellphone to family and loved ones. They also had access to the Internet and a game room set up in the Lindstrom Library.
"It was really neat, because this year, we had the school approach us, if we were going to do this again, and we're going, 'Yes.' And then we had the ride captain of the Warriors' Watch Riders ask us if we were going to do this again, and we're thinking, 'Yes. This is great.' So people started coming to us," Linda Stack said.
"We had planned to do it anyway. But it was nice to have them come forward."
Bob Stack said, "We're just so glad that they are here and that they can get off the base for the day and have a day of relaxation, a little change of pace."
The recruits heard from Arlington Heights Mayor Thomas Hayes, who welcomed them not only as mayor but also as an Army veteran. He made humorous references to the rivalry between the Navy and Army football teams, adding, "I say that in jest, because we are all part of the same team."
Pastor Chuck Wilcher of Northwest Bible Church in Wheeling reminded the audience of Stack's sacrifice and said of Stack's surviving family, "As difficult as it was and is for them, they have a bright hope in that great loss. They have a confident expectation of being together with him soon enough. And in their heart, they didn't lose him."
After Wilcher's remarks, the recruits joined Tom VanGrundy, Warriors' Watch Riders ride captain, in a spirited rendition of "Anchors Aweigh."
The group of Navy recruits has been in boot camp for six weeks and will soon graduate.
One of the recruits, Cory Holmes, 22, of Phoenix, Ariz., got to talk to his girlfriend via cellphone.
"It was nice," he said.
Along with Stack's family, in attendance was a close friend of James, 24-year-old Brian Carlton, who is on leave from his Navy base in San Diego. Carlton, who is from Arlington Heights, said he has been in the Navy for a year and a half.
"I wanted to protect my country and freedom and do something more with my life than nothing at all," he said.
He said he misses his friend James and called the Stack family's outreach "a very noble thing."
He said he particularly misses hanging out with his friend, swimming, camping and playing the video game Call of Duty.
Both of them shared the same birthday. "And one year we gave each other the same exact gifts," he said.
Robert Stack said he sees his son in some of these recruits.
"Most of them are very young. And our son was a Marine when he was 18 years old. And I'm sure some of these recruits are 18. They are young. Many of them are right out of high school," he said. "In some cases, I'm sure they are away from home for the first time,"
Linda Stack said she was thrilled to able to support the recruits. "To see their enthusiasm on the bus, it's a joy," she said.
Her faith sees her through the tragedy of losing her son at a young age.
"I know I'm going to see him again. That's what gets me through," she said. "I know, one day, together in heaven, forever, I'm going to join my boy again. He trusted that Christ died for his sins, and that's why I know, on the authority of Scripture, I will see him again."
She said she shared that with her son's daughter, Mikayla, who is now 4 and recently spent three months with the Stacks.