The average age of the American servicemen who fought to liberate Europe from Fascism and the Pacific from Japanese Imperialism was nineteen.
Think about what you were doing at nineteen. For me, the year was 1967, and I was still enjoying the benefits of a college deferment. It would be two more years before I would begin my four years of military service, and as a member of the U.S. Air Force I was never in any of the real danger usually associated with service during the Vietnam War.
Most of us can only imagine the mature decisions forced upon those teenage members of that Greatest Generation, as we have come to call them. Yet somehow military servicemen of every generation provide us with examples of heroism that cannot be found in any other walk of life, and today's generation of young Americans is no exception.
Ross Andrew McGinnis, of Knox, Pennsylvania, was born on June 14, 1987, to Tom and Romayne McGinnis. Recognizing that he was not interested in attending college, Ross enlisted in the U.S. Army's Delayed Entry Program on his seventeenth birthday, June 14, 2004. He finished high school, graduating in 2005, and then entered basic training.
He was nineteen when he died a hero's death in Iraq on December 4, 2006.
He and his Army buddies had often speculated what each of them might do if faced with a split-second, life-or-death decision. Ross said he didn't know what he might do. Now the whole world knows.
When Ross McGinnis saw an enemy grenade land in his humvee, he could have jumped from the vehicle. He had enough time, and his Army training told him to do just that. Yet somehow the lives of the other four soldiers in that vehicle were more important to him, and Ross threw himself on top of the grenade, pressing his back against it and absorbing the impact of the blast. He was killed instantly, of course, but he had saved the lives of the others: Sergeant First Class Cedric Thomas, Staff Sergeant Ian Newland, Sergeant Lyle Buehler and Specialist Sean Lawson.
For the rest of their lives, these four men will remember their teenage buddy, mature beyond his years, who in a split second decided that he was willing to sacrifice his life in order to give them a chance to go home, marry, have children, raise families, have careers, see their grandchildren running in the yard and enjoy all the freedoms only America can provide. One of them has since said that he will always feel guilty for the life Ross gave him.
For his action, nineteen-year-old Private First Class Ross Andrew McGinnis was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor the United States of America can bestow upon a military member.
President Bush, in an emotional presentation of the Medal last week at the White House, spoke of McGinnis' sacrifice:
"No one outside this man's family can know the true weight of their loss. But in words spoken long ago, we are told how to measure the kind of devotion that Ross McGinnis showed on his last day: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
"The Gospel also gives this assurance," Bush continued. "'Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.' May the deep respect of our whole nation be a comfort to the family of this fallen soldier. May God always watch over the country he served, and keep us ever grateful for the life of Ross Andrew McGinnis."
But perhaps the most poignant remarks came from Ross's father, Tom:
"Our Bible tells us that God gave up His only son to die for us so that we may live. But Romayne and I are not gods. We can't see the future, and we didn't give our son to die, knowing that he will live again. We gave him to fight and win and come home to us and marry and grow old and have children and grandchildren. But die he did, and his mother, dad and sisters must face that fact and go on without him, believing that someday we will meet again. Heaven is beyond our imagination and so we must wait to see what it's like."
Indeed. Thank God for heroes like Ross McGinnis.