PALMER -- Watching Melissa S torey cuddling her handsome infant son, it's hard to imagine she was torn by remorse giving birth to him in February.
"I remember saying over and over, 'I want my husband,' " she recalled. "I felt incredible guilt, thinking this isn't fair to this child -- he'd never know his dad."
Dad was Clint Joseph Storey, an Army staff sergeant. He was killed in Iraq last August.
Clint Joseph Storey II, who turns 3 months old Saturday, is the youngest member of a plucky family that includes his sister, Adela, still a summer away from kindergarten.
Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, fallen military personnel have left behind more than 1,600 spouses and 2,000 children.
Melissa had long envisioned herself as a stay-at-home mom, but not like this -- raising two children by herself.
Now every day is a balancing act -- missing Clint without lapsing into anger or self-pity; making time for silliness with her kids even when laughter doesn't come easily; trying to ensure they grow up knowing their father without being scarred by the loss.
"I can't make this better for them, Storey said. "I can't make it better for myself. It's something we have to face."
The Storeys' home is a two-bedroom apartment in a wood-frame house in Palmer, a town of about 12,500. The living room is decorated with two-dozen framed photographs -- Clint and Melissa in evening wear; the two of them with Adela; Clint in combat gear.
Melissa will decide later when and how to tell her son about his father. But already she's laying the groundwork: "I carry him up to the photos and say, 'There's your daddy.' "
With Adela, there was no opportunity to calculate how to break the news. Mother and daughter were together last summer, taking a nap, when a military chaplain and sergeant arrived to report the death.
Melissa, now 29, met Clint in 1998, when both were living in Texas. She and a friend caught sight of him -- smiling broadly -- at a sports bar at his base, Fort Hood.
"I told my girlfriend, 'I'm going to marry that man' and two years later I did," Storey said.
Their marriage "wasn't always perfect, it wasn't always fun. . . . But there's nothing I would change," she said. "He was an excellent father. He would have hung the moon and the stars for Adela. . . . And for me."
Melissa says Clint came home for a brief break last June. He was killed on Aug. 4 when an explosive device ripped through his vehicle in the city of Ramadi.
He was 30. He would have turned 31 on Feb. 27, the day after his son was born.
Like any young child, Adela has flashes of temper and noncooperation, presenting Melissa and a local therapist with a question neither can answer precisely. "What's happening because of her dad, and what's just because she's 4?"
With her son, she sees challenges in years to come when she tries to acquaint him with Clint through videos and letters.
"I'm afraid he'll grow up not really missing him because he doesn't know him," Melissa said.
This weekend, the Storeys head to Washington, D.C., to join other bereaved military families for Memorial Day activities. Melissa bears no ill will toward those responsible for the war.
"Being angry at people won't bring Clint back and it won't help my family get through this," she said.
Still, his absence is keenly felt.
"I want him here," Melissa said. "I want my husband to fix the sink and the leaks. I want him to be my date. I want him to be the one I sit next to on the couch and watch movies. I want him to be the one I look at smiling when our child does something incredible.