A few years out of high school, Balsley became an Army cavalry scout, a tough assignment on the front lines of combat. His father asked him why.
"I guess I want my own war stories, Dad," Balsley replied.
After three months in Iraq, the 23-year-old soldier was on patrol east of Baghdad when a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee. He was killed in the explosion along with Army Sgt. Alexander H. Fuller, 21, of Centerville, Mass. They are among 81 soldiers from the same brigade combat team to die in Iraq.
"I have seen what combat can do," said Balsley's father, Jim, 59. "But even though I encouraged my sons to do what they wanted to do, I had an immense fear of what would happen to Michael. And that came true."
Born June 30, 1983, Balsley grew up in Hayward, Calif., a middle-class town that hugs the rolling East Bay hills south of Oakland's gritty urban plain.
Jim Balsley said his son was "sensitive. He kind of looked at the world a little different than most." As a little boy, he climbed their home's dangerously high roof to reach the neighborhood birds. His father built him cardboard wings and let him jump off a backyard picnic table instead.
The family kept a mean-spirited Muscovy duck, Simon, who was a "devil in disguise. He used to attack everybody. But Mike was the only guy that Simon liked. He used to sit on his lap," said Balsley's older brother, James III, 25, of Alameda, Calif., who is in law enforcement.
Michael Balsley was a fairly poor student at Mount Eden High School, his father said, and he got into mischief. He worked the merry-go-round and children's rides at Kennedy Park, then at Festival Cinema. He later worked with his father at an AC Delco auto parts warehouse, but after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks Balsley wanted to join the military.
"He was real quiet," his father said of the day that he enlisted. "Michael didn't get quiet very much. I asked him what was going on, and I believe he said, 'That's a hell of a thing to do.' "
After his basic training at Ft. Knox, Ky., the Army dispatched Balsley to the demilitarized zone in South Korea. He spent a year there and wanted to stay. "He kind of liked Korea. I don't think he wanted to come back," his father said. "He had an opportunity to extend his tour, but he said he messed up his paperwork."
During basic training, Balsley met his future wife, Samantha. While he was in South Korea, they e-mailed each other and were married when he returned to the states. On her MySpace.com page after he died, Samantha wrote: "I know you will wait for me forever. I love you, Michael."
The Army sent Balsley to California for desert warfare training at Ft. Irwin, near Barstow. By October, he was in Iraq with the 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division based at Ft. Carson, Colo., where his wife and 1-year-old stepson, Logan, now live.
Before he shipped out for Iraq, the Balsley family in California became involved with Operation: MOM in nearby Castro Valley, a support group for military families. Balsley's mother, Beverly, 56, who is an elementary school cafeteria worker, said she came from a military family and is a "sucker for patriotic music."
She said she wanted to get involved in the group after attending a Memorial Day service around the time her son signed his paperwork to join the Army. She remembers thinking about a mother who had lost her son: "How do you do this? How do you get through this?"
Jim Balsley said he wants his son to be remembered as a patriot. "Michael was a real person," he said. "Michael was not just another name in the newspaper about another fallen hero defending the United States. Michael was a real individual."