Military couple returns home to bury child

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By Jay Cason

When Melissa Hytinen left the military base near Ansbach, Germany, in late October to be deployed to Iraq, she never dreamed it would be the last time that she would be able to talk and share hugs with her baby daughter.

But barely a month later, Melissa received the message that is every parent's worst nightmare. Her almost-6-month-old daughter Natalee had died in her sleep, an apparent victim of sudden infant death syndrome.

After Melissa left for Iraq, Natalee remained in the care of her father Roger, who was also stationed at the military base in Germany.

Roger was having a great time bonding with his little girl until the morning of Nov. 27 when, trying to rouse her from sleep, he found her unresponsive.

"I went to get her ready to go to the airport to pick up a friend who was returning from Iraq," Roger said. "When Natalee didn't appear to be breathing, I ran outside and started screaming for help."

A nurse who lived nearby rushed to the scene, but it was too late.

Only a few months together

Roger and Melissa met while on the way to boot camp and the relationship, which blossomed from that initial meeting, led to a marriage that seemed complete when, on May 10, Natalee was born.

But the beautiful baby girl was only able to share their lives for a few short months.

When Melissa learned of her deployment a short time after Natalee's birth, she didn't like the prospect of being separated just a few months after delivery.

But she understood that such situations are a part of today's life in the military.

Besides, she had, and continues to have the utmost confidence in her husband.

"He was great with her," Melissa said. "I knew that wouldn't be a problem. But I was concerned about missing her first words, her first steps."

Roger didn't have serious reservations, either.

"I was scared initially about taking care of her myself," he said.

"But I was more worried about Melissa going to Iraq. Natalee might not get her mother back.

"I'd have preferred to be the one to go and Melissa stay here. But you got to do what you got to do."

'I needed to go home'

Perhaps experiencing a kind of premonition, Melissa said she felt a strong need to return to Germany about a week before Natalee died.

"I needed to go home because she was sick with a cold," Melissa said. "I asked my chief to let me go. I told him I would come back, but he wouldn't let me go."

A week later, it was too late.

In the short time since they lost their child, Melissa and Roger have dealt with a whirlwind of paperwork and protocol necessary to return to the states and make appropriate funeral arrangements.

They've had little time to gather their thoughts and even less time to grieve.

"We've had some moments," Melissa said.

"My husband and I have had some moments as well," said Lisa Hytinen, Natalee's paternal grandmother.

"You travel to Kentucky and wait for your kids to arrive. You say, 'What can I do?'

"You tell the lids you love them. You hug your daughter-in-law's parents, and they hug you back."

"It still doesn't seem real," Roger said, adding that he continues to think he's going to return to Germany and play with his daughter. But he also realizes she's not there.

"There's nothing you can do to fix this," he said.

"I believe God decided that I need a guardian angel to watch over me and that's what Natalee's doing. I really do believe that."

"She was such a good baby," Melissa added. "She let everybody hold her and never cried. We'll always miss her and always love her."