Cpl. Ryan C. McGhee, of Fredericksburg, Va., Buried at Arlington National Cemetery

By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Ryan McGhee's interest in the military dated back to his days playing soldier as a child. By the time he was ready to graduate from high school, football had become his passion.

Tying the two together was McGhee's idol, Pat Tillman, a football star who famously chose to leave the gridiron to serve his country as an Army Ranger. McGhee wanted to follow that example, forgoing the chance to keep starring on the field to become a Ranger.

Cpl. Ryan C. McGhee, 21, of Fredericksburg died May 13 after his unit encountered enemy forces in central Iraq, according to the Department of Defense. McGhee was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, based at Fort Benning, Ga. He had been deployed to Afghanistan three times before being sent to Iraq.

"My son was one of a kind," said his father, Steven McGhee. "He was a beautiful son, a great man who loved his family, his fiancee and loved his country. And he will always be my son and my hero."

McGee was born in Pittsburgh and lived in Springfield, Vt., before moving to Virginia before his sophomore year of high school.

As a youth, McGhee enjoyed such athletic activities as snowboarding, skateboarding and trick bicycling. "And he loved playing Army," his father said. "He loved playing soldier with his big brother Zachary."

The brothers went from playing soldier to the real thing: Zachary McGhee is a sergeant in the Army National Guard.

McGhee excelled at football. He was a linebacker and captain of the football team at Massaponax High School in Fredericksburg. Not long after arriving in Virginia, McGhee met Ashleigh Mitchell. It was the "picture-perfect love story" of the football star and the cheerleader, his father said of the high school sweethearts. They were engaged and planned on a spring 2010 wedding.

McGhee was set to play football in college after graduation in 2006, but he came home one day during senior year and surprised his father with the news that he had joined the Rangers. He was emulating Tillman, who set aside a lucrative career in the NFL to serve in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Ryan just idolized Pat Tillman and everything he was made of," Steven McGhee said.

Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.

"He was just a good kid," Steven McGhee said. "Everyone loved him. He was charming. He always saw the good and positive in people."

Hundreds of McGhee's family and friends gathered at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday to honor him. The ceremony was held at the southern boundary of Section 60 of the cemetery. The mourners filled Marshall Drive and Bradley Road during their march to the grave site. Members of the motorcycle group the Patriot Guard Riders provided a solemn watch.

Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland Jr., commanding general of the Army Special Operations Command, walked in the procession of mourners. During the service, he presented folded flags to McGhee's father; his mother, Sherrie; his brother; and his fiancee.

McGhee is the 458th service member killed in Iraq to be buried at Arlington.

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