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Marine Lance Cpl. Michael S. Probst, 26, Irvine; Killed by Roadside Bomb in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Trailing a small red or black cape as a young boy, Michael S. Probst often took imaginary flight from the doorstep of his Orange County home, pretending he was Superman one day, Batman the next, off to save the neighborhood from harm only a child could dream up.

Probst teamed with his next-door neighbor and best friend, James Lin, on these missions. And in their world of make- believe, this dynamic duo wore out their capes so fast that Probst’s mom could barely finish sewing new ones before they were out the door again, looking for someone else to rescue.

Probst’s parents never fathomed that one day their son would travel to a foreign land far away, to fight and be killed by an enemy all too real. Now, as they struggle to accept his death, they take some solace in the image of their little boy charging through the door, a superhero returning home just long enough to change his cape.

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“He and James were always flying around, saving the neighborhood,” said Probst’s mother, Judy. “And that’s how he died, saving the world.”

Born and reared in Irvine, the 26-year-old Marine Corps lance corporal was killed Feb. 14 by a roadside bomb near Abu Ghraib, Iraq, west of Baghdad.

He was deployed to Iraq about five months ago with the 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Twentynine Palms, Calif. As part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, his unit was attached to the 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward).

Probst was a lead driver in a platoon that was responsible for spotting and clearing improvised explosives along Iraq’s busiest highways. His roommate and Humvee crew member, Lance Cpl. Jay Thurin, was injured in the blast and is recovering from shrapnel wounds.

“He was an awesome Marine, a great friend,” Thurin said. “He’s going to be missed greatly.”

The second of two sons, Probst was strong and trim with a square jaw and eyes of gray -- “the color of a storm,” as his mother described them.

He often was mistaken for actor Matt Damon, but his family and friends say he didn’t let his chiseled good looks go to his head. They remember a funny, smart, determined and competitive young man, someone who made friends easily and lived his life with passion.

“He was so spirited,” his mother said. “He had such a zest for life.”

A gifted athlete, Probst was named an all-star Little League pitcher after an undefeated season, and went on to play baseball and football at Irvine High School. He also studied the martial art of Jeet Kune Do, created by legendary Chinese actor Bruce Lee, from the time he was 12.

“He got so proficient, I could let him teach my class,” recalled Gabriel Gambino, his longtime instructor and mentor. “He was my senior student and best friend.”

Probst had a musical side too, playing the saxophone in the high school concert band. At home, his parents recalled, the walls would echo with the catchy, jazzy riffs of one of his favorites, Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”

“He really loved that one,” said his father, Roger, smiling at the memory.

Probst attended Cal State Chico for a time, but eventually left school, unsure about his future.

Before he signed up for the Marines in 2004, he discussed the decision at length with Gambino and his father, who served as a Marine officer in the Vietnam War.

His father and mother, a retired school teacher, didn’t want him to join, but respected their son’s decision. He told them he thought it would be a good stepping stone.

Probst thrived in the structured environment of the Marine Corps, embracing the discipline and training, his parents said. He took pride in his physical condition and wore his dress blues every chance he got.

“If anyone should have been a Marine, it was Michael,” Gambino said. “He said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”

In Iraq, Probst had the same assignment as his father in Vietnam: to make roads safe for advancing troops and supplies. He carried out more than 100 combat missions covering more than 15,000 miles, surviving roadside bombs on several occasions, said his platoon commander, 1st Lt. Benjamin S. Adams.

In dispatches home, Probst told his parents and brother, Matt, how much he loved them, and gushed about the batches of homemade cookies sent from Wisconsin by his grandmother Bernetta Probst. “Good stuff hahaha,” he wrote.

In January, Probst and Thurin were injured by a roadside bomb. Probst, who suffered a concussion, called his parents to say he was OK. His mother told him to keep his head down and “eat your peas,” invoking the title of a popular children’s book, like she had done since he was a child.

Probst asked for a cross to slip on his dog tags. His mother found one made of silver, sealing it with a kiss so it “would land on his heart and he would know we loved him more than anything.”

The cross arrived three days before he died.

Probst also is survived by his grandmother Ruth Stanchi of Florida, and several aunts, uncles and cousins.

His parents ask that donations be sent to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, 825 College Blvd, Suite 102, PMB 609, Oceanside, CA 92057.


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