'They needed to be there,' says widow who focuses on the good of husband's Afghanistan service
America is leaving Afghanistan, but a part of Arlington Heights widow Katie Stack can never leave that war-torn nation.
"If I look at it as my husband's sacrifice was for nothing, it would completely destroy me," says Stack, who was 19 with a 1-year-old when a sniper's bullet killed her 20-year-old husband, Marine Lance Cpl. James Bray Stack, on Nov. 10, 2010, while he served with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Sangin, Afghanistan. "You have to find the good in everything."
Her husband and the 24 others in his battalion who were killed were keeping peace in Afghanistan and helping women and girls go to school, Katie Stack says.
"They knew they needed to be there. They knew they were doing good," says Stack, who recently turned 30. "We were able to give them that, even though it was short-lived. There was once a time when we were severely needed. My husband gave the ultimate sacrifice."
He didn't die serving President Bush, who started the war, or President Obama, who continued the war, or some political philosophy later expressed by President Trump or President Biden. James Stack died serving his country.
"I just keep telling myself I need to make it home to my beautiful wife and baby," Stack said in his ornately handwritten letter from Oct. 30, 2010. Katie Stack has the 16 letters he wrote her during his less than two months served in Afghanistan. The last letter he wrote, which arrived after he was killed, is locked away to be shared with their now 11-year-old daughter, Mikayla, when she is older.
"He knew," Katie Stack says, noting that his battalion already had lost 13 men. "He wrote us a letter basically saying, 'Goodbye.'"
She last talked to him during a satellite phone call two days before he was killed. "I just remember asking him 100 times if he was OK, and that I love him," she says.
Tattooed on her left forearm, above the bracelet she wears commemorating her husband and three of their friends who died in Afghanistan, is "I love you" copied in the handwriting from a letter Stack sent to Mikayla for her 1st birthday. Other tattoos also honor him, their friends and their relationship.
Mikayla still has the teddy bear her dad gave her before he left for Afghanistan.
"She lives through him. She just did a shrine in her room of him and me. She surprised me with it. It was so cute," the mom says.
"She finds comfort in knowing he absolutely loved her. She finds comfort in knowing we had so much love for each other, and that's never going away."
The Gold Star, given to families of service members who died while serving during a conflict, remains in its box. Stack doesn't wear the sweatshirt she had made with the saying, "My hero traded his dog tags for angel wings."
As vice president of the Help USA Troops charity that she runs with her mother, Dawn Hedrick, Stack focuses on the positive of delivering care packages to people serving in the military.
"I don't want to be bitter, because that's not what James would want," Katie Stack says.
They met during a track practice at Christian Liberty Academy, where she was a 15-year-old student who ran the hurdles and performed the long jump, and he, 16, was a home-schooler who participated in the high jump and shot put, and also won a state pistol-shooting competition.
"I'm so glad I went to track practice," James Stack wrote his wife from Afghanistan. "You have been an amazing girlfriend, and wife, and mother."
She took classes at Harper College, earned a bachelor's degree in 2020 from the University of Illinois-Chicago in criminology, law and justice, added a daughter, Hallie, now 7, and says she'd like to get a master's degree and find a career that would allow her to work some from home and spend time with her daughters.
She also has a blonde German shepherd therapy dog named Ares, after the Greek god of war, and a cat named Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage and other admirable attributes.
Noting the outpouring of support she gets from her family, her late husband's family and their friends, "I'm doing my best," she says.
She was staying at her mom's home in Arlington Heights on the day her husband was killed.
"I was sleeping and got a knock on the door," she says, recalling how she looked out the window and saw Marines in green uniforms. "They showed up at my door at 9 o'clock in the morning. I knew. I remember looking at them and yelling, 'No! It can't be him! You have the wrong door!' It's still surreal."
She phoned friends, Chelsea and Hannah, and doesn't remember the words the Marines said.
"I just remember sitting on the curb and thinking, 'This is not real,'" says Stack, who held Mikayla in her arms. "I remember just holding her and breaking down."
Their daughter kept her going.
"I had to get through it for her. She saved me," Katie Stack says. "There were multiple times I was really struggling, and I knew she needed me."
So much has changed for her, Mikayla, our nation and Afghanistan in the 20 years of that brutal war. But some traditions will live on. Stack and her daughters honor James Stack, who is buried at Memory Gardens Cemetery in Arlington Heights, every year on his birthday.
"We usually get balloons and his favorite cake," Katie Stack says, "and eat it at his gravesite."