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Marine Staff Sgt. Justin E. Schmalstieg, 28, Oceanside; killed in Afghanistan blast

Defusing land mines is dangerous under the best of circumstances; darkness only ups the ante.

Such were the conditions in mid-December when, after a battle in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a group of Marines was trying to get back to base overnight to avoid an ambush that was anticipated at daylight.

The job of clearing the path belonged to Staff Sgt. Justin E. Schmalstieg 28, an experienced bomb disposal technician from Camp Pendleton who was on his fourth tour of duty.

Schmalstieg’s skills were such that he was chosen to demonstrate them in Marine training videos and during a visit last year by the Marines Corps commandant to the base near Oceanside.

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“Justin knew that his work was dangerous, obviously, but he also knew that he had a very important job and that accidents could be avoided through knowledge and training,” his mother, Deborah Gilkey, said recently. “He was realistic, but he focused on what needed to be done.”

On the night of Dec. 15 Schmalstieg was focused on getting his unit to safety when a misstep set off an explosion that killed him.

“It was difficult but necessary for them to move before dawn,” Gilkey said, describing her son’s last mission. “It was said that Justin’s work that day ultimately saved the lives of many Marines.”

Schmalstieg was on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan when he died. He had served three tours in Iraq after enlisting in 2001 and was promoted to the rank of gunnery sergeant after his death.

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His mother, who like his father is a Pittsburgh police detective, said the military offered Schmalstieg direction, especially at first. Later, as he continued to serve, “he found that EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] required the diligence and skills which put his natural strengths and interests to work,” his mother said.

Schmalstieg belonged to the 1st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, 7th Engineer Support Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton.

His bomb disposal skills were noted last April in The Convoy, a weekly publication at the base. A helmeted Schmalstieg is pictured lying on his belly in fatigues and a flak vest, working on a buried device. The photograph accompanied a story about exercises at the base during a visit by Gen. James T. Conway, who was then the Marine commandant.

During his off hours, Schmalstieg found a spiritual home at St. Margaret Catholic Church in Oceanside, the community where he lived after marrying in late 2009. He attended Mass each morning before heading to work on the base, and he and his wife spent time each week going door-to-door in the parish, inviting lapsed Catholics back to church and introducing the faith to those interested, said Father Cavana Wallace, the parish priest.

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Before he deployed to Afghanistan, Schmalstieg asked Wallace for a blessing, the priest said.

“We had sent this young Christian, an expert in detecting and defusing explosives, out into the local streets and neighborhoods of Oceanside to clear the way and open up a safe path for Christ to walk among his people,” Wallace said. “In his duty to this country, Justin did likewise.”

Growing up in East Pittsburgh, Schmalstieg played video games and hockey and was known as a quiet kid. At Peabody High School, he belonged to the ski club and cross-country team.

As a young man, Schmalstieg “worked hard and played hard,” his mother said. He enjoyed snowboarding, diving, Sunday drives and a beer with friends and family. And he was known for his handstand push-ups.

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A few years after he graduated from high school, Schmalstieg began dating Ann Schneider, a classmate whose picture was next to his in the Peabody yearbook. They were married in November 2009 at Pittsburgh’s Sacred Heart Church.

“He was full of life and love,” his mother said. “He wouldn’t let anything or anyone stand in the way of something that he wanted. He pursued his one true love, his soul mate, for many years and married her.”

A little more than a year later, hundreds gathered at the same church for Schmalstieg’s funeral Mass. Uniformed police officers turned out to support Gilkey and her husband, John, whose public service had influenced their son’s decision to join the Marines.

In addition to his wife and parents, Schmalstieg is survived by his brother, John Gilkey. He is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Pittsburgh, next to the site of the hospital where he was born.

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lisa.girion@latimes.com


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