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Medal of Honor goes to one who defied past

Pfc. First Class Ross McGinnis, 19, had turned his life around. He died saving his comrades.

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 soulmate, 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 would never get that chance.

McGinnis was in the gunner's hatch of a humvee 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 on the grenade, which blew up and killed him.

Tomorrow, the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, will be awarded in his name.

"Ross was a hero," said Ian Newland, one of the soldiers McGinnis saved. "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."

McGinnis grew up in Knox, about 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where he lived with his parents, Tom and Romayne, and older sisters Becky and Katie. They now live several miles away in a neat and modest mobile home they moved into after McGinnis left for the Army, and his father jokes that he's a redneck: unsophisticated and living in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. He works at an auto-supply store.

To tell his son's story, Tom McGinnis believes it must be told truthfully, rough patches and all.

"He wasn't the hero in the sense that a lot of people 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 told of his son's arrest after he was caught, at 14, with marijuana in school and of his son's expulsion for the rest of eighth grade. McGinnis finished at an alternative school he liked so much, he didn't want to return to regular school.

Eventually, McGinnis decided the Army could provide him training as an automotive technician. He enlisted on his 17th birthday: June 14, 2004.

Once in the Army, McGinnis proved himself a quick learner and showed leadership.

He met his girlfriend, Christina, whom he called his soulmate and true love, while stationed in Germany. It was there, too, that he developed tight bonds with his fellow soldiers.

While overseas, McGinnis e-mailed his father to apologize for the problems he had caused when he was young. In his reply, Tom McGinnis told his son that there was no need to say he was sorry, and that he wished he had been a better provider to his family.

Ross McGinnis proudly shared the e-mail with several fellow soldiers.

"He said they bonded more that one day than they had throughout their training," his father said. "When he called home to tell me about it . . . he says, 'You son of a bitch, you made me cry.' "

McGinnis would come home only twice on leave before he was killed, the last time for a couple of weeks in the spring of 2006. His family noticed how he had matured.

"He was more reserved and more confident and seemed to stand a lot taller, although he didn't grow any while he was in the Army," his father said. "He was a man. Unfortunately, we never really got to know him as a man. He was a child when he left, he got to visit with us a couple times, then he was gone."