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He died saving four soldiers

Pfc. Ross McGinnis of Knox, Pa., is awarded the Medal of Honor.

June 03, 2008|James Hohmann | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — If there's an opportunity to escape the deadly blast of a grenade, the Army trains soldiers to take it.

When an Iraqi insurgent threw a grenade into the Humvee where Pfc. Ross A. McGinnis manned the machine gun, he had time to jump from the turret and save himself.

But he didn't. In a matter of seconds, with four comrades stuck inside, McGinnis yelled "grenade" into his microphone, dropped down the turret and used his back to smother it.

On Monday, during a solemn White House ceremony, President Bush presented McGinnis' parents, Tom and Romayne, with a posthumous Medal of Honor for their son, who absorbed the grenade's blast and saved the other men.

"America will always honor the name of this brave soldier who gave all for his country and was taken to rest at age 19," Bush said. "No one outside this man's family can know the true weight of their loss."

Eighteen months later, memories of the incident remain seared in the souls of those whose lives McGinnis saved. In interviews, McGinnis' brothers in arms -- flown in from as far away as Germany -- choked up as they recounted the attack on their convoy on Dec. 4, 2006.

When the grenade -- thrown from a nearby rooftop -- landed, McGinnis shouted into his microphone to alert the men below. With that, truck commander Sgt. Cedric D. Thomas counted down.

"I was like '3-2-1.' Just like that," Thomas said. "The truck filled with black smoke."

"If [McGinnis] wouldn't have blocked it with his body, there's no doubt that nobody would have escaped it," said the Humvee's driver, Sgt. Lyle Buehler, who was wounded by shrapnel.

A month before, a similar situation had occurred with another convoy. When a grenade landed inside a Humvee, the gunner jumped out, as he had been trained to do. That grenade turned out to be a dud.

"In the days that followed, McGinnis said he didn't know what he would do," Buehler said. "I felt the same way. It's hard to say what you'd do."

Now, Buehler said, he lives with a feeling of guilt every day.

"Any time I have something good in my life, a family gathering or anything, I think about his family, how his family doesn't have that anymore," he said. "And he could have had that. And it hurts."

Raised in Knox, Pa., a town about 50 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, McGinnis joined the Army at 17 through its delayed-entry program, which allows enrollees to learn some military fundamentals before they get to basic training.

"I guess about the only thing you're really going to remember about my son is that he did the right thing at the right time," his father, Tom McGinnis, said at a news conference after the ceremony.

After his death, McGinnis was promoted to the rank of specialist and was awarded the Purple Heart, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Army Good Conduct Medal.

In addition to his parents, he is survived by two sisters.

During Monday's ceremony -- only the fourth time the Medal of Honor has been presented for exceptional valor in the Iraq war -- Bush was noticeably choked up.

"We were supporting each other because he said if I cry, he would probably cry," said Romayne McGinnis, relating an exchange she had with Bush in a private meeting before the ceremony. "If he cried, then he'd make me cry."

In an interview, McGinnis' roommate, Cpl. Brennan Beck of Lodi, said that lately he had been dreaming a lot about his buddy. A week ago, he said, he dreamed about walking around with his friend on their base in Iraq. McGinnis -- who would have turned 21 on June 14 -- was wearing the Medal of Honor around his neck, and everyone was saluting him.

"He goes, 'Man, I hate being saluted all the time,' " Beck said, recalling the dream. "So I asked why he doesn't just take the medal off. He looked at me and said, 'Man, you know what a chick magnet this is? All the girls talk to me.'

"I woke up," Beck said. "I missed him so bad, but I had a smile on my face. It was so real."

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james.hohmann@latimes.com

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