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Visitor brings gift of a lifetime

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Bernetta "Bernie" Probst, 93, said about her Valentine's Day surprise, "When something beautiful like this happens, we should share it with people."

Probst, a River Falls native who lives at The Lutheran Home, said she was about to eat lunch Feb. 14 when a handsome young man came and kneeled beside her. He asked her if she knew Michael Probst.

Bernie acknowledged that he, a Marine, was her grandson but had been killed in action Feb. 14, 2006, in Iraq.

The young man visiting Bernie, recently retired Marine Sgt. Aaron Fuller, said he'd been a close friend. He then presented Bernie with flowers he said were from Michael.

Fuller, of New Richmond, told her how his friend had mentioned several times that he wanted Fuller to come to Wisconsin with him and visit his grandmother. The two men met in California after joining the Marines.

Fuller said Michael's words had stuck with him.

Bernie said it touched her even more when Fuller's adorable 4-year-old son excitedly told her his name is also Michael. Fuller confirmed the boy is named after his friend.

"I have had many, nice, kind, beautiful things done for me in my life," said Bernie. "This topped them all."

She said Fuller stayed and talked for a while -- before she knew it the dining room was empty and she hadn't eaten lunch.

Bernie says she was so excited and touched by the gesture she could barely sleep that night or eat the next day.

Family, honor

Bernie is the widow of Harvey Probst, a well-known local she calls the love of her life.

They were married 51 years and have four daughters and two sons: Harvey, Lisa, Mary Jo, Michelle, Roger and Shari.

Michael is the son of Roger and Judy Probst, who raised him in California, where they still live near his older brother, Matthew, his wife Morgana, and their young son and daughter.

Judy says their family visited River Falls often as the boys were growing up. She says Michael once rode a tricycle in the River Falls Days parade.

She says her and Roger were both touched by Fuller's gesture, as well as all the fellow Marines who paid their respects at Michael's funeral.

Judy says more than one of them told her how much everyone had looked up to Michael. They were sure that if he'd lived, he would have become a high-ranking officer and strong leader.

The day Michael died, he was driving a Humvee when the crew aboard it spotted an IED. The vehicle pulled to the side of the road so a team could defuse the bomb.

The Marines didn't realize the wheel of the Humvee had been resting on another IED. When it pulled away, the device exploded, killing Michael and injuring two others.

Judy said it was telling to learn that the bomb left a crater 12 feet long and five feet deep.

Michael's mom describes him as athletic, competitive and someone who liked to win. He attended college for two years but hadn't decided a major.

Learning a bit from Roger, who'd also served in the Marines and advanced to captain, Michael became intrigued by the Marine Corps' emphasis on physical fitness and endurance. He joined in 2004 and graduated basic training in the top 10 percent of his class.

Judy proudly shares how the Marine Corps foundation grants an annual $25,000 scholarship in Michael's name.

Always faithful

Fuller says he was born in Baldwin, has family in River Falls and recently moved to New Richmond. He and Michael were in the same unit together, often talking about their ties to Wisconsin.

"Every year the guys we served with remember Michael," Fuller said. "We always tried to do something to remember him."

He said since Michael's death, he's tried to work up the courage to visit Bernie.

Asked why he needed courage, he said was apprehensive not knowing where Michael's family was in their grieving process or how the visit would be received. He feared some potential questions and wondered if he'd know how to reply.

Fuller said he wanted it to be a positive remembrance and not upset anyone.

"It's one of the hardest thing you have to do in life is face the family of someone who's lost," he said.

Though he's started to do it many times, Fuller said a story in the "L.A. Times" that referred to Michael and his grandmother in Wisconsin, prompted him to start again trying to find "Grandma Bernie."

Some Internet research and asking around soon led him to her -- a woman he says reminds him a lot of Michael.

"One of the sweetest ladies I've ever met," he said about her, adding that she seems to be "caring for everybody" just the way Michael did.

He recalls his friend's good nature, remembering how happy he'd been when -- during deployment -- they learned Fuller had a healthy daughter born. He said Michael grinned as broadly as he did about the new baby.

"I really want people to remember who he was," said Fuller.

He said his friend always put others' needs before his own, cared for all the kids he encountered and tended to everyone's well-being.

Fuller recalls that Michael's parents say he always wanted to be a superhero -- and he thinks his friend achieved that.

While he made the visit, he says it was on behalf of many people who want to demonstrate that the fallen aren't forgotten and who think such gestures serve as a good reminder of what freedom costs.