President Bush on Monday presented the nation’s highest military award to a young soldier killed in Iraq when he threw himself on a hand grenade tossed into a Humvee where four other soldiers sat.
Ross McGinnis of Knox, Penn., was 19 years old when he gave his life to save the lives of his colleagues.
“The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military distinction,” the president said. “It’s given for valor beyond anything that duty could require or a superior could command.”
Bush was joined at a White House ceremony by Vice President Dick Cheney and military leaders, McGinnis’ parents, Tom and Romayne, and others.
McGinnis was in the gunner’s hatch of a Humvee in Iraq on Dec. 4, 2006, when a grenade sailed past him and into the vehicle where four other soldiers sat. He shouted a warning, then jumped back-first onto the grenade, which blew up and killed him.
‘He loved doing what he was doing’
“Ross was a hero, I mean, he was honestly the type of soldier that was trustworthy, that was reliable, that was dependable before combat. He loved doing what he was doing,” said Ian Newland, one of the soldiers McGinnis saved.
McGinnis grew up in the small town of Knox, about 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where he lived with his parents, and older sisters Becky and Katie. His father jokes that he’s a redneck: unsophisticated and living in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. He works at an auto supply store. Romayne works at Wal-Mart.
Tom McGinnis believes his son’s story must be told truthfully, rough patches and all.
“He wasn’t the hero in the sense that a lot of people that think of heroes,” his father said. “He made some bad decisions, but he still turned out to be a good person. ... And that’s really the message that I’m trying to get across by pointing out his faults. Not that I’m trying to disparage him in some way.”
So he tells of his son’s arrest for being caught with marijuana in school, at age 14, and of getting expelled for the rest of eighth grade. He finished at an alternative school that he liked so much he didn’t want to return to regular school.
“He didn’t pick up things at school like he should, for whatever reason. And his grades always suffered,” his father said.
Eventually, Ross McGinnis decided the Army could provide him training as an automotive technician. He enlisted on his 17th birthday, June 14, 2004. “When he told us that he was going to enlist, we didn’t discourage him, because we knew he wasn’t college material,” his father said.
However, once in uniform Ross proved himself a quick learner and showed leadership.
He met his girlfriend Christina, whom he called his soul mate and true love, while stationed in Germany. That’s also where he developed tight bonds with his fellow soldiers.
“He definitely loved to make jokes and get everyone laughing, but when things got serious ... you only had to tell Ross one time. He had it down,” recalled Newland, 28, who was a sergeant when McGinnis was assigned to him in Germany. “He was a natural.”
The two became close before deploying to Iraq. McGinnis often spent weekends with Newland, his wife, daughter and son, becoming part of the family.
“That’s the way my family viewed him and the other soldiers as well. We all saw him as a brother,” said Newland, who retired in November because of his shrapnel injuries from the grenade attack.
“My daughter still, every night when she says her prayers, thanks Ross for saving her daddy’s life,” he said.
While stationed overseas, McGinnis e-mailed his father to apologize for the problems he caused when he was young. In his reply, Tom McGinnis told his son there was no need to say he was sorry, and that he wished he had been a better provider to his family.
Ross McGinnis proudly shared the e-mail with several fellow soldiers.
“He said they bonded more that one day than they had throughout their training,” his father said. “When he called home to tell me about it ... He says, ‘You son of a bitch, you made me cry.”’
McGinnis only came home twice on leave before he was killed, the last time for a couple of weeks in the spring of 2006. His family noticed how he matured since enlisting.
“He was more reserved and more confident and seemed to stand a lot taller, although he didn’t grow any while he was in the Army,” his father said. “He was a man. Unfortunately, we never really got to know him as a man. He was a child when he left, he got to visit with us a couple times, then he was gone.”
McGinnis last spoke to his parents on a Friday, three days before he was killed. He called his mother at her job Wal-Mart, where it was easier to reach her.
“So I’d take the call out on the floor. You talk about hard to keep your composure when your son is calling from Iraq,” she recalled.
He told her his picture was on the front of Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper, accompanying an article about his unit coming under attack after Saddam Hussein was convicted.
“He was really proud of that picture and he carried it with him, they said. And he called and told us about it,” his father said. “And on Monday, I was bragging about his fame. Monday night, we learned that he was dead.”
Lingering memories, emotions
More than a year after his death, friends still leave messages to McGinnis on his MySpace page. “Hey man i miss you so much and i wish you were here,” one poster wrote in April.
The other soldiers in the Humvee — Sgt. Lyle Buehler, Sgt. 1st Class Cedric Thomas and Spc. Sean Lawson — are still in the military. They planned to attend Monday’s Medal of Honor ceremony but were unavailable for interviews, an Army spokesman said.
Newland still struggles with knowing he’s alive because of his friend’s sacrifice. If McGinnis had jumped from the Humvee to save his own life, as he had been trained, no one would have faulted him, Newland said.
“I’ve never felt more proud in my life to have known somebody and have shared so many experiences with somebody and to have someone call me their friend,” Newland said, “but at the same time, never felt so guilty and ripped apart from the inside and outside and almost wishful that events could have been changed.”