A 21-year-old soldier from Southeast Baltimore was killed in combat in Iraq, the Defense Department said yesterday.

Pfc. Michael J. Potocki, who was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq, died after his unit came under small-arms fire in Al Asad.

Potocki's family was notified of his death early Tuesday morning. Since then, his extended family has gathered daily on the front porch of the rowhouse of his mother, Debra Potocki, on East Baltimore Street just over the city line in Baltimore County.

"We just never thought it would ever happen to us," said Leo Potocki, one of his uncles.

Potocki graduated from Patterson High School in 2003 and joined the military shortly thereafter. He was assigned to the Army's 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment in Germany and had just begun sniper school in Iraq. He had also befriended an Iraqi family and would have dinner at their house, his uncle said.

Family members said Potocki's tour was scheduled to end in August and that he looked forward to returning to civilian life. They said he planned to settle in Baltimore, buy a house and join the city Police Department.

In high school, Potocki took automotive classes and especially liked "the old muscle cars," his uncle said. He also worked at several Southeast Baltimore restaurants, including Birches and Cap'n James in Canton and Matthew's Pizza.

Potocki told relatives he was stationed in a safe area of Iraq, but the family learned this week that he "was in the worst possible place you could be in Iraq," Leo Potocki said.

"That's why he never told us where he was," added Mike Potocki, another uncle. "He didn't want nobody worrying about him."

Potocki's family last saw him at Christmas.

"He was just a normal kid, good as gold," Leo Potocki said. "He matured a lot, just the year or two that he was in there. His mother's real proud of him. Real proud."

chris.yakaitis@baltsun.com