With Iraq War Come Layers of Loss

By Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 2, 2007


Manning a .50-caliber machine gun in the turret of a Humvee, Pfc. Ross McGinnis could see the insurgent on a rooftop fling a hand grenade at his vehicle. He shouted and tried to deflect it, but it fell inside. Four of his buddies were down there.

What followed was a stunning act of self-sacrifice. McGinnis, a 19-year-old from rural Pennsylvania and the youngest soldier in his unit, threw himself backward onto the grenade, absorbing the blast with his body. He was killed instantly. The others escaped serious injury.

With the death toll for U.S. service members in Iraq past the 3,000 mark, McGinnis's heroism, on Dec. 4, stands as one extreme in the vast spectrum of how Americans are experiencing the Iraq war.

Like an emotional manifestation of the laws of physics, the casualties have rippled across the American psyche -- those close to the events have been profoundly moved, while those at some distance, the majority of Americans, have been largely unaffected. Concentric circles of loss spread outward, starting with grieving parents, spouses and children -- many so young they will not remember the father or mother who was killed in war. Families of the severely wounded face a future they never planned for and financial hardships they never imagined. In small towns, which supply much of the nation's fighting force, one death can send an entire community into mourning. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops continue to brave the war zone, while their friends, families and sweethearts worry at home.

At a Pentagon service to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that more than 1.3 million troops had been deployed to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is almost one in every 230 Americans.

In a USA Today-Gallup poll in October, 11 percent of respondents said they had a close friend, family member or co-worker who was wounded or killed in the Iraq war; an additional 43 percent had a friend, relative or colleague who had served in it.

For much of the rest of the country, the reverberations of the conflict are limited to headlines and television images of explosions or discussions about Iraq policy. The nation's war dead are returned to the United States privately, their flag-draped coffins shielded from cameras.

"The fatal flaw was when right after September 11 the president asked everyone to go on with their lives. That set the stage for no one sacrificing," said a Special Forces team sergeant who recently served in Iraq. "That's why they aren't behind it, because they don't have a stake in this war. They aren't losing or gaining anything. If you don't see it, smell it, feel it, how are you connected?"

'We Will Meet Again'

In the Humvee in Baghdad's Adhamiyah district that afternoon, Sgt. 1st Class Cedric Thomas, the platoon sergeant, heard Ross McGinnis's warning and shouted back: "Where?"

"The grenade is in the truck," McGinnis yelled. Then he ducked down and backward, pinning the device between his body and the radio mount just before it went off.

"He had time to jump out of the truck. He chose not to," Thomas said, according to official military accounts of the incident. McGinnis's action saved Thomas and three other soldiers from "certain serious injury or death."

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