A human shield for his comrades

19-year-old's sacrifice honored at service

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They will gather tomorrow in Clarion County to celebrate a lackluster student, a scrawny teenager, a brave soldier and a selfless man.

At 19, Army Pfc. Ross McGinnis was all of those.

He died Dec. 4, throwing himself on a grenade that an insurgent flung from a rooftop into the Humvee that carried five U.S. soldiers who were on patrol in Baghdad.

Pfc. McGinnis, positioned atop the Humvee in the gunner's hatch, saw the grenade coming and tried to bat it away. He missed and the explosive landed inside the truck.

"An average man would have leapt out of the gunner's cupola to safety," the Army said in its official account of the life-or-death episode. "Pfc. McGinnis decided to stay with his crew. Unhesitatingly and with complete disregard for his own life ... he threw his back over the grenade to pin it between his body and the truck's radio mount."

It detonated seconds later, piercing Pfc. McGinnis' body armor and killing him instantly.

Even though he turned himself into a human shield, the force of the blast was still powerful enough to badly injure another soldier. He is in the hospital and faces a months-long recovery. Shrapnel hit a third soldier, tearing a ball of flesh from his shoulder.

But the other four lived, and they know it was because of Pfc. McGinnis.

The unit medic, Sean "Doc" Lawson, 20, of Tyler, Texas, was one of those in the Humvee. Afterward, he wrote this note to Pfc. McGinnis: "I wish I could thank you face to face for saving my life. But for now I will go on letting everyone know that you are truly a hero, and be forever grateful to have had you as a close friend."

In Knox, the Clarion County town where Pfc. McGinnis grew up, the knowledge that he was so brave provides little comfort to his parents, Tom and Romayne, and his sisters, Becky, 24, and Katie, 22.

The Army already has awarded Pfc. McGinnis the Silver Star, and his captain has nominated him for the Medal of Honor, America's highest award for combat valor. Such attention is rare for any soldier. Just one U.S. serviceman has received the Medal of Honor since the war on terrorism began in 2001. A handful of others are under consideration.

"This may help to ease the pain eventually, but it still hurts," Tom McGinnis said yesterday.

Hundreds of friends and relatives have trooped through his home in the last week. All of them are in awe of what Pfc. McGinnis did. Tom McGinnis said their kind words helped him make it through the last week.

They will assemble again at 2 p.m. tomorrow for a service at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Knox. Pfc. McGinnis' body was cremated. His ashes eventually will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But the memories of him remain whole.

"I know medals never crossed his mind," Tom McGinnis said. "He was always about friendships and relationships. He just took that to the ultimate this time."

If young Ross always craved one thing, his father said, it was action.

"He wasn't a real good student. He couldn't sit still in class. It's no secret he really didn't like school."

Indifferent about his studies at Keystone Junior/Senior High School in Knox, he signed up for the Army as soon as he turned 17, pledging to enlist right after graduation.

Later, the idea of becoming a performance mechanic who would work on sports cars sparked his interest like no academic subject ever had. But, by then, he had committed himself to the Army. He left for basic training a week after receiving his high school diploma in June 2005.

Despite his fervor for military service, there remained some doubt about whether he would qualify physically, his father said.

Ross was a skinny kid, a biscuit away from being frail. He had a growth spurt at 16, going from about 5 feet 6 to 6 feet tall. But he never filled out. He weighed only 136 pounds the day he died.

His unit, Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, headed to Kuwait in July. It moved into Iraq a couple weeks later.

His family had only sporadic communication with him once he reached the war zone, and the topics of those phone calls were generic. Nothing changed back home. His dad kept working at an auto supply store in Knox, and his mom went on managing the cosmetics department of the Wal-Mart in Clarion.

But from Iraq, one big difference shined through. As a teenager in a small town, Ross had always been something of a comedian, the gangly boy with style and bite. As a soldier, the youngest in his unit, he took on a different personality.

"He became a much more serious person," his father said.

A young man in his company died a painful death, lingering in a burn unit after being injured in a roadside bombing. It signaled to everyone that no assignment on the streets of Baghdad was routine.

Pfc. McGinnis, though, continued to believe in his cause. He told his family the United States was right to be in Iraq, fighting so a society could be free.

When the grenade landed in his Humvee, he hesitated perhaps a second before throwing himself on it.

Staff Sgt. Ian Newland, 26, of Tipp City, Ohio, will never forget it.

"You saved my life, bro," he said in a message he posted on Pfc. McGinnis' Web site.

With the memorial service tomorrow, many are trying to help the McGinnis family through its grief by sending money or gifts. Tom McGinnis said he appreciates the sentiment, but he would like the kindness spread around.

"Instead of doing something for us, do something for a soldier or for a veteran. Tell them it's from Ross McGinnis," he said.

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.


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