On a cool, damp afternoon, Army Lt. Col. Michael B. Baka stood in the soggy grass at Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60. He inserted a small American flag into the earth at the headstone of Spec. Ross A. McGinnis, and then squatted and bowed his head in reverence. His right hand rested on the stone’s marble side, his fingers softly tapping.
For a moment, the outside world ceased to exist.
More than eight years after McGinnis, 19, died Dec. 4, 2006, while saving the lives of four other soldiers, his former commanding officer is still in awe of his heroism.
Baka was two vehicles ahead of McGinnis in a six-truck convoy in Iraq when an insurgent tossed a hand grenade into McGinnis’s Humvee from a rooftop. The young, slender soldier rapidly descended from his perch in the gun turret to smother the explosion. He posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s top award for valor, in June 2008.
“I thought my truck got hit because the blast was so loud,” Baka said of the explosion. “It blasted all the doors open on the vehicle. All the doors were combat-locked, and then they were just swinging open.”
During three tours, Baka said, he witnessed countless heroic actions on the battlefield. It’s what inspired him to join the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the “Old Guard” whose mission includes one of the most solemn in the armed forces – the performance of horse-drawn funeral ceremonies at Arlington.
The regiment is also responsible for “Flags In,” the annual placement of American flags in front of more than 228,000 headstones at Arlington cemetery in advance of Memorial Day. For the hundreds of soldiers involved, it’s a way to respect veterans who served as long ago as the Civil War, when the Union began burying dead soldiers on a grassy hillside across the Potomac River from Washington.
For Baka and some of the combat veterans involved, however, “Flags In” is especially personal — a chance to honor the fallen they served with in war. In Section 60 lay hundreds of men and women who served in the Iraq and Afghan wars.
McGinnis is among those buried in the 14-acre plot.
His unit — Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment — had deployed in August 2006 from Germany to Adhaminyah, a chaotic district in northeastern Baghdad. The area had been patrolled by U.S. troops only sporadically, and he and his unit, led by Baka, were called upon to help pacify it as President George W. Bush dispatched thousands more U.S. troops to Iraq as part of a surge in military forces.
The toll was exceptionally severe, even for the Iraq War. Thirty-one soldiers in Baka’s battalion were killed in combat, including 14 who served in the infantry company he commanded. Two of them are buried at Arlington: McGinnis and Pfc. William R. Newgard, 20, who was killed Dec. 29, 2006, by a roadside bomb blast in Baghdad after leaving Baka’s company to join a senior commander’s personal security detail.
“God only knows why some of us came home and some of us did not,” Baka said. “I know I didn’t think I was coming home. I think many of us did not think that we were coming home.”
Another soldier in Baka’s company in Iraq, Spec. Raymond R. Powell, died in a November 2008 car wreck in Georgia after returning home, Baka said. The soldier struggled to cope with the loss of nine soldiers in his platoon, including McGinnis.
Powell also is buried at Arlington, and received the same solemn visit from the lieutenant colonel Thursday as McGinnis and Newgard: The placement of the flag, the crouch in front of the headstone, the tapping of the fingers.
One year after McGinnis’s death, Baka was promoted to major at Arlington, joining McGinnis’s family for the ceremony. He then took an assignment at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. — a chance to “take a knee” and rest after the brutal deployment, reconnect with his wife and young children and grow personally, he said.
At West Point, the officer was made the school’s special assistant for honor. The position put him in close contact with cadets who had run afoul of the school’s code of conduct, and allowed him to share what he had seen.
“I remember one time, I was counseling a cadet who had got in some trouble, and I think it was December 4th, which is the anniversary of McGinnis. I said, ‘Sign here, December 4th, 2006.’ And he kind of giggled a little bit and said, ‘Sir, it’s 2009.”
Baka explained the slip — and related why the date was burned in his memory.
“For commanders, it’s ‘What could I have done differently?'” he said. “I’ve had some mentors talk to me and others talk to me, too. People say, ‘the enemy has a vote.’ But you never know, being a leader, how many times you commanded your soldiers to turn left instead of right, or do this instead of that, or here instead of there, based on your competencies as a tactician, or maybe just sheer luck, or God’s will.”
Baka arrived as the No. 3 officer in the Old Guard, and will become its deputy commander June 1. He’ll continue to visit his soldiers in Arlington, he said. A holly tree near McGinnis’s grave is regularly decorated for holidays, he noted cheerfully.
“Never in your wildest imagination,” he said, “do you think you’ll be in the presence of a soldier that does a valorous or gallant act that would be equivalent to a Medal of Honor.”