SHIPPENVILLE, Pa. Growing up in a small rural town, Ross McGinnis was more apt to get in trouble than on the honor roll. So he enlisted in the Army, and in just under a year found his soul mate, a brotherhood, and even himself.
"I just cannot wait for the day when I can connect all 3 lives into one," McGinnis wrote on his MySpace page. "But that day will not be for a long time."
The 19-year-old private first class never got that chance.
He was in the gunner's hatch of a Humvee on Dec. 4, 2006, when a grenade sailed past him and into the vehicle where four other soldiers sat. He shouted a warning, then jumped back-first onto the grenade, which blew up and killed him.
On Monday, he will be posthumously presented the nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor.
"Ross was a hero, I mean, he was honestly the type of soldier that was trustworthy, that was reliable, that was dependable before combat. He loved doing what he was doing," said Ian Newland, one of the soldiers McGinnis saved.
McGinnis grew up in the small town of Knox, about 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where he lived with his parents, Tom and Romayne, and older sisters Becky and Katie. His father jokes that he's a redneck: unsophisticated and living in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. He works at an auto supply store. Romayne works at Wal-Mart.
Tom McGinnis believes his son's story must be told truthfully, rough patches and all.
"He wasn't the hero in the sense that a lot of people that think of heroes," his father said. "He made some bad decisions, but he still turned out to be a good person. ... And that's really the message that I'm trying to get across by pointing out his faults. Not that I'm trying to disparage him in some way."
So he tells of his son's arrest for being caught with marijuana in school, at age 14, and of getting expelled for the rest of eighth grade. He finished at an alternative school that he liked so much he didn't want to return to regular school.
"He didn't pick up things at school like he should, for whatever reason. And his grades always suffered," his father said.
Eventually, Ross McGinnis decided the Army could provide him training as an automotive technician. He enlisted on his 17th birthday, June 14, 2004. "When he told us that he was going to enlist, we didn't discourage him, because we knew he wasn't college material," his father said.
Once in uniform, however, Ross proved himself a quick learner and showed leadership. He met his girlfriend, Christina, whom he called his soul mate, while stationed in Germany. That's also where he developed tight bonds with his fellow soldiers.
"He definitely loved to make jokes and get everyone laughing, but when things got serious ... you only had to tell Ross one time. He had it down," recalled Newland, 28, who was a sergeant when McGinnis was assigned to him in Germany. "He was a natural."
The two became close before deploying to Iraq. McGinnis often spent weekends with Newland, his wife, daughter and son, becoming part of the family.
"That's the way my family viewed him and the other soldiers as well. We all saw him as a brother," said Newland, who retired in November because of shrapnel injuries in the grenade attack.
"My daughter still, every night when she says her prayers, thanks Ross for saving her daddy's life," he said.