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."
That evening, two Army officers in dress uniforms rang the doorbell at the McGinnis home in Knox, Pa.
"At that moment, I felt as if I had slipped off the edge of a cliff and there was nothing to grab onto," wrote McGinnis's father, Tom, in a statement provided to The Washington Post. "If only my life could have ended just a moment before this."
The following morning, news of the death of the lanky 6-foot-tall amateur mechanic rippled through the small community of 1,200, where his high school graduating class had 86 students. McGinnis, who was promoted posthumously to specialist and recommended for the Medal of Honor, was the first soldier from the town to die in Iraq.
"It was such a shock," said Vicky Walters, the high school assistant principal, who had known McGinnis since he was a baby. "We're grief-stricken. We were some of the ones who were insulated." About 7 percent of high school graduates in Knox, in western Pennsylvania, join the military.
McGinnis joined the Army at 17, before graduating in spring 2005. That fall, he came back to school in his uniform. It was the last time Walters would see him. "He just beamed," she said, choking up.
McGinnis's father, reflecting on his family's loss, wrote that his son went to war not to die but "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." (Tom McGinnis's full statement can be read at http://www.washingtonpost.com.)'Home to a Different Life'
Christopher and Brandon Adams can't grasp what has happened. "They don't understand why Daddy talks that way, why Daddy can't play, why Daddy can't throw a football for them," Summer Adams said from her living room in Miramar, Fla.
Her husband, John, a Florida National Guardsman, was severely disabled in August 2003 by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar province. He is one of more than 22,000 service members who have been wounded in Iraq.
After the phone call telling her he had been injured, she waited three frantic days to find out where he was, she said, a complaint heard from families of others wounded early in the war. When she arrived at the intensive-care unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, she still had no idea about the extent of his injuries. "I guess we are supposed to receive the shock when we reach the hospital," she said.
John, who experienced severe trauma from a quarter-size piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain, lay heavily bandaged "with tubes everywhere," she said. After briefly acknowledging his wife, he fell into a long coma.
Months later, the couple were able to return to Florida, but their challenges had only begun. "We came home to a different life. Nothing was the same anymore," said Summer. John's speech was barely understandable, and though he eventually was able to walk again, he would pass out from vertigo if he looked up.
On Christmas Eve a year ago, the couple arrived at Summer's mother's house for dinner as some neighbors were setting off firecrackers. John wouldn't get out of the van. "He couldn't take the noise," Summer said.
With children who are 5 and 7, she has been unable to return to work as a claims supervisor for an insurance company and had to ask for help from the Red Cross to pay the mortgage and water bill. Army administrative problems left the family without pay and health insurance for the children for months at a time.
"I looked for whoever could help me, or I got on the phone and started yelling," Summer said. "As hard as it gets and frustrating -- and I scream -- you just have to keep going."
John, 40, said he feels frustrated, too, but recognizes that many other wounded troops are even worse off. "There are so many people like me," he said, his words slurred. "People need to know."'Working Our Way Out of It'
With a long scar on his face, metal holding his jaw together and more reconstructive surgery ahead, 23-year-old Sgt. Doug Szczepanski Jr. often finds people staring at him on the street. "Sometimes I'll make up stories and tell them it was a shark attack, or a skateboarding incident," he said. "Then when I tell them the truth, they'll look at me all weird and say, 'What? You got blown up in Iraq?' They don't know what to say."
Szczepanski was wounded in September 2005 when a suicide bomber exploded an Opel sedan packed with artillery rounds next to his convoy north of Baghdad.
"I was scanning to the left and it came up to us really quick," Szczepanski said. The blast blew his face open down to the collarbone, blinding him in the left eye and nearly severing his right ear. Shrapnel pierced his head and his upper body was covered with second- and third-degree burns.
His parents saw him six days later, when he was transferred to the hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. "He was unrecognizable, he was so swelled up and burned," his father, Doug Sr., said in a phone interview from their home in Bay City, Mich. "You first see your child like that and you're so confused. You don't know if you should cry, sit down, throw up. We just wanted to get on the airplane and go back home and pretend none of this happened."
But relying heavily on their faith, the family persevered.
Szczepanski's mother, Amy, closed her business as a home child-care provider to care for her son, losing about $1,300 a month in income. "We probably would have lost our home without help," she said. "We're still working our way out of it." A survey this year by the nonprofit Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, which has helped the Szczepanskis and the Adamses, showed that more than half of families of the seriously wounded experience a drop in their standard of living.
Szczepanski has given up his goal of becoming a police officer like his father, but because he was spared brain injury -- "a miracle," his mother says -- he plans to obtain a degree in criminal justice and pursue a job in that field.'I'm Willing to Give My Life'
Sgt. Matthew Boone, 26, of Anderson, Ind., is serving his second tour in Iraq now; he thinks he will probably be back for a third. He also has served in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa since 2001, when he joined one of the most deployed units in the Army, the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.
"It has put into perspective what is really important, and that's my family," Boone said in October at a base outside Baghdad. "But I'm willing to give my life for this."
Still, "it's rough," he said. "You miss your kids' first this, first that." His youngest son, Marcus, is 3. More than half of U.S. troops deployed overseas are married, according to Pentagon statistics.
The members of the 2-10 Mountain take pride in their many deployments. 1st Sgt. David Schumacher, 37, of Watertown, N.Y., has been to Iraq three times and has deployed a total of eight times, going back to his tour in Somalia.
"I love what I do," Schumacher said in a recent interview in Yusufiyah, Iraq. "This is what I signed up for. But I'd like to let my family enjoy me for more than a few months at a time."
Maj. Mitchell Watkins, 40, of Vonore, Tenn., has had seven operational deployments in his career and is on his third tour in Iraq, now as the executive officer of the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, based in Tall Afar. Watkins said that each combat death is intensely tragic -- he lost one of his closest friends during his last tour -- but that what the troops have given for their country should never be forgotten.
"I willfully continue to serve here because I believe that our sacrifice is still appreciated by many Iraqis who desire to truly be free, and by the people at home who are supporting us," Watkins said in November. "Having lost two close personal friends here in this war and almost 3,000 comrades, I understand the sacrifice this presents to my family, but I have no regrets."Hitting Home
After paying tribute to President Gerald R. Ford as he lay in state over the weekend, Katy Dotson, a high school teacher from West Milford, N.J., said she struggles with the number of American lives that have been lost in the Iraq war. Dotson, 24, said she recently sat in on a colleague's current-events class and was struck to see how little the students knew about the conflict and its victims.
"Most Americans don't understand that people are numbers and numbers are people," she said. They grasp the gravity of the situation only when tragedy strikes close to home. "We had one young man die from our town," she said. "It was a very big deal. The post office was renamed after him."
Staff writer Ernesto Londoño contributed to this report.