The true meaning of Heroism, part 3

Jeff Emanuel

1/8/2007 12:00:09 AM - Jeff Emanuel

(click links for parts one and two)

When most young men are turning seventeen, they are thinking about their upcoming senior year of high school, their sports career, or their choice of college. When Ross McGinnis, of Knox, PA, turned seventeen, he marched down to the recruiter’s office and joined the Army via the delayed enlistment program.

When in kindergarten, said Rebecca McGinnis, her son “drew a soldier...when he was supposed to picture what he wanted to be when he grew up.” At the age of 18, the ambidextrous McGinnis was in training to be an infantryman, where he qualified as a sharpshooter with both left and right hands. Shortly thereafter, he was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, based in Schweinfurt, Germany, where he was the youngest soldier in the unit.

In August of this year, he found himself in Iraq, patrolling the streets of Baghdad, and in November, immediately following the Saddam-trial verdict, he helped forcefully put down a premeditated violent uprising by insurgents.

McGinnis distinguished himself so greatly in his first three months in Iraq that a waiver was requested – and granted – to promote him to Specialist (E-4) despite lacking the requisite time in service.

On December 4, 2006, at the age of 19, Ross McGinnis traded his life for the lives of four members of his squad, when he jumped on a grenade and shielded them from the blast. He remains 19 years old forever..

On the last day of his life, PFC McGinnis was manning the .50-caliber machine gun mounted in a turret atop his Humvee, and serving as the rear guard in a mounted combat patrol against insurgents and sectarian fighters. As the convoy made a turn onto a narrow street, a fragmentation grenade was thrown from the rooftop of an adjacent building. According to the official report, "[McGinnis] immediately yelled "Grenade!" on the vehicle's intercom system to alert the four other members of his crew...[he] made an attempt to personally deflect the grenade, but was unable to prevent it from falling through the gunner's hatch."

For his subsequent actions, McGinnis was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the military's third-highest award for combat heroism (specifically, for "gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States").

According to platoon sergeant Cedric Thomas, who was commanding the vehicle, "McGinnis yelled 'Grenade...It’s in the truck!’...I looked out of the corner of my eye as I was crouching down and I saw him pin it down.

"He had time to jump out of the truck. He chose not to."

Thomas reportedly "remembered McGinnis talking about how he would respond in such a situation. McGinnis said then he didn’t know how he would act, but when the time came, he delivered."

"He gave his life to save his crew," Thomas said. "He's a hero. He’s a professional. He was just an awesome guy."

McGinnis's Silver Star citation recounts the events in greater detail:

His Platoon Sergeant, the truck commander, was unaware that the grenade physically entered the vehicle and shouted "where?" to PFC McGinnis. When an average man would have leapt out of the gunner's cupola to safety, PFC McGinnis decided to stay with his crew. Unhesitatingly and with complete disregard for his own life he announced "the grenade is in the truck" and threw his back over the grenade to pin it between his body and the truck's radio mount.

When the grenade detonated, PFC McGinnis absorbed all lethal fragments and the concussion with his own body killing him instantly. His early warning allowed all four members of his crew to position their bodies in a protective posture to prepare for the grenade's blast. As a result of his quick reflexes and heroic measures, no other members of the vehicle crew were seriously wounded in the attack. His gallant action and total disregard for his personal well-being directly saved four men from certain serious injury or death.

The tremendous sacrifice involved in such a gallant, heroic act is indescribable. At the age of 19, the youngest man in his Company, Ross McGinnis willingly forfeited his own life, his own desires, and his own future so that his comrades - those with whom he had been facing enemy fire - could have them.

McGinnis exemplifies a mindset which is both incomprehensible and unimaginable to all who have not been in such a situation. When faced with a life or death situation, with an escape route both simple and available, and against every instinct of self-preservation, he chose death - and, in doing so, allowed the four other men with him to keep their lives.

"He was that kind of person," said Michael Blair, a fellow 1-26 infantryman. "He would rather take it himself than have his buddies go down."

We all take comfort, solace, and heart in the knowledge that there are men like Ross McGinnis in this great country, who are willing to give everything for their fellow man. However, our detachment from the situation allows us to contemplate such things far more abstractly than we would be able to were we directly involved.

For what consolation can a grieving mother take, knowing that she will never again greet the son she raised from infancy; that never again will he be home for Christmas, never again will she hear his voice on the phone, never again will she hold him in her arms? What comfort can a father take in knowing that his only son, not yet out of his teenage years, has predeceased him – that he must linger, while the young flesh of his flesh has perished?

This is a question that has been contemplated since time immemorial. Words of comfort, which are more than difficult to come by in such a situation, come to mind in the form of a letter written to one such parent many, many years ago. The writer was Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, and the recipient was Mrs. Lydia Bixby, who had lost five - five - sons to the bloody fighting of the American Civil War. Mr. Lincoln wrote, on November 21, 1864:

"I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom."

We can only hope and pray that when Tom and Rebecca McGinnis think of their son Ross, which they will always do with a sorrow that none but a parent can know, they will dwell not on the life that was lost, but on those that were saved - and that they focus not on the act that took his life, but on the manner in which he conducted himself in willingly giving it. The fact that their son committed the ultimate act of love, heroism, sacrifice, and selflessness, giving his life that others might live, may be little comfort to a grieving parent. However, it is no small achievement, no mean feat, and is worthy of nothing but the highest possible recognition from the grateful nation that he died serving.

And he may yet receive the highest recognition that America can offer him. Due to the unparalleled heroism with which he conducted himself, PFC Ross McGinnis has been submitted for the Medal of Honor. We can only hope that the earthly memory of his final act is justly served, and that his nomination is quickly approved.

Ross's posthumous Silver Star was presented to his parents at a memorial service, held with full military honors, on December 17 in Knox, PA. Most deservingly, his final resting place will be Arlington National Cemetery, where he will no doubt be welcomed with open arms by those fallen heroes who already await him there.