Army Spc. Ross Andrew McGinnis wanted to serve his country for as long as his family could remember, so it was no surprise to them that he joined up in the years after 9/11. He was sent to Iraq to fight in the global war on terror, and while he never came home from that mission, four other men did thanks to his courage. McGinnis’ sacrifice earned him the Medal of Honor.
McGinnis was born on June 14, 1987, in Meadville, Pennsylvania, to parents Tom and Romayne McGinnis. He had two sisters, Becky and Katie.
When McGinnis was 3, the family moved about an hour southeast to Knox, Pennsylvania, where he went to Clarion County public schools, was a Boy Scout and played baseball, basketball and soccer.
As a teen, McGinnis worked part-time at a McDonald’s and became a car enthusiast. He took classes at a nearby career center in automotive technology in the hopes of one day becoming an auto mechanic in the military — something he’d desired to be a part of since childhood. His mother said that during kindergarten, when he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he drew a picture of a soldier.
McGinnis got involved as soon as he could. In June 2004, on his 17th birthday, he enlisted in Army through its delayed entry program. After he graduated from Keystone Junior-Senior High School in 2005, he officially became a soldier.
After basic training, McGinnis was sent to serve in Schweinfurt, Germany. Many of the friends he made there said he was known for doing impersonations and making everyone laugh.
In August 2006, his unit, the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, was deployed to Iraq. He was only there for four months before he made the ultimate sacrifice for his fellow soldiers.
On Dec. 4, 2006, then-Pfc. McGinnis was serving as a machine gunner in Company C in the northeastern part of Baghdad. His platoon was working to control sectarian violence in the area, which was rampant at the time.
During that afternoon, while McGinnis was in position at the back of his vehicle, an insurgent threw a grenade from a roof, and it fell into McGinnis’ Humvee. The private first class reacted quickly, yelling “Grenade!” to warn his four fellow soldiers stuck in the vehicle with him.
Instead of saving his own life by escaping through the gunnery hatch — as he was trained to do — McGinnis, who was the youngest in his platoon at 19, chose to give his own life to protect his crew, diving onto the live grenade to shield them from the blast. He died immediately.
The other soldiers in the vehicle with him — Sgt. 1st Class Cedric Thomas, the platoon sergeant and truck commander; Staff Sgt. Ian Newland, the squad leader; Sgt. Lyle Buehler, the driver; and medic Spc. Sean Lawson all survived thanks to his bravery and selflessness.
Shortly after his death, McGinnis’ parents released a statement about him that said in part, “The lives of four men who were his Army brothers outweighed the value of his one life. … The choice for Ross was simple, but simple does not mean easy. His straightforward answer to a simple but difficult choice should stand as a shining example for the rest of us. We all face simple choices, but how often do we choose to make a sacrifice to get the right answer? The right choice sometimes requires honor.”
On June 2, 2008, former President George W. Bush presented McGinnis’ parents with the Medal of Honor during a White House ceremony. His sisters and the soldiers he helped save were also in attendance. McGinnis was posthumously promoted to specialist and also received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
“I know medals never crossed his mind. He was always about friendships and relationships,” McGinnis’ father later said. “He just took that to the ultimate this time.”
McGinnis is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He’s one of only three Medal of Honor recipients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be buried there.
McGinnis continues to be remembered across the military community and in his home state. In the past 15 years, the Pittsburgh military processing center was renamed in his honor, as was a post office in his hometown. In 2017, the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, Georgia, dedicated a statue bearing McGinnis’ likeness as part of its Global War on Terrorism Memorial.
On Veterans Day 2009, former President Barack Obama left a presidential coin at the young soldier’s grave after remembrance services at the cemetery. McGinnis’ medal is on display at the First Infantry Division Museum in Wheaton, Illinois.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.