In the East Room of the White House
The invitation reads,”The President requests the pleasure of your company at a ceremony and reception to be held at The White House on Monday, June 2, 2008 at nine o’clock”. The first page of the program reads, “The President welcomes you to The White House on the occasion of the presentation of the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Private First Class Ross A. McGinnis, Untied States Army. Monday, June 2, 2008”
The invitation and program awaited each guest on each of the approximately 150 chairs arrayed around the low platform in the East Room of the White House. Against the wall, behind the slightly off-center podium stood the National Colors, the President’s flag, and the flag of the United States Army bearing all its campaign streamers.
To the viewer’s left of the podium stood an easel, bearing in a large gilded frame the light blue-grey, multi-starred personal standard of a Medal of Honor recipient.
Mute, and yet speaking volumes.
The event that took place that morning in the span of ten minutes was a high point in a story without either a distinct beginning or end. From our initial assembly that morning across the Potomac River in Crystal City to this room had taken three hours. We were an eclectic group: The Vice President, the civilian and uniformed leadership of the Department of the Army and the Joint Chiefs, members of Congress and the Executive Branch, White House Staff, the Fourth Estate, Medal of Honor recipients from past conflicts, citizens of Clarion County, Pennsylvania, Blue Spaders – active and retired, and four soldiers who owe their lives to Ross McGinnis. For some the trip to this room had taken just over 20 years.
When I agreed beforehand to report on the ceremony I should have foreseen that words spoken would have been well chosen, well presented, and very well reported. The invocation and the benediction by the Chief of Army Chaplains, the remarks by The President, the citation read by the Presidential military aide have been transcribed, recorded, and repeated by every conceivable media. My repeating them would be pointless. I should have demurred with the knowledge that I was not equal to the task.
But there were things that the news media had not seen, not heard, and not reported. Things in addition to the three buses for the guests of the family with the police escort riding on the wrong side of Constitution Avenue to get around the morning rush hour traffic; or the waiter’s reaction when one guest told another that the cranberry juice on the buffet line was white zinfandel; or the fact that nobody (except the Lieutenant Colonel from Army Public Affairs) wanted their picture taken in front of the portrait of the 42nd President.
It took a while (hurry up and wait) to move all the guests through security to finally reach the antechamber outside The East Room. No one seemed to really mind. It was there that I first observed what the media would overlook: The Eyes.
We, this growing crowd that had come from different points around the United States and Germany, represented several distinct segments of Americana. How they were dressed was, of course, an indicator of their identity. But their eyes told what had brought them to this gathering.
- In the eyes of the White House military aides you saw compassion and sympathy, an attempt to offer warmth and welcome to strangers who were awash in painful, silent memories; an attempt to honor the bravery of a single American soldier lost in the cauldron of war.
- In the eyes of the little children you saw wonderment at their surroundings because God protects the innocent.
- The eyes of those soldiers past and present who had served in other theaters on other continents, who had witnessed similar sacrifices and in some cases had barely survived themselves you could see both pain and pride in the brotherhood that is the American warrior.
- The eyes of the uniformed soldiers who wore the Blue Spade (the distinctive insignia of the 26th Infantry Regiment) over their right breast pocket showed a hurt from having witnessed the willing sacrifice by their youngest comrade of everything that the future held in store for him.
- In the eyes of the friends and cousins, most having come down from the environs of Knox in Clarion County, Pennsylvania you could see a hurting from the loss of close friend and from the fact that religious fanaticism half a world away had reached into their quiet corner of the Allegany’s and snuffed out a warm and happy light.
- The eyes of his parents and his sisters showed a pain from looking into a void that had once been filled by the smiling face of an impish boy and will forever be dark and empty, save for memories.
No, the scrolling headlines and the ten-second sound bites did not report any of this. The USA Today newspaper devoted six lines of text and a picture at the bottom right hand corner of page four to the presentation of the Medal of Honor without mentioning Ross’s unit; but they devoted two columns of page one and a diagram to Teddy Kennedy’s brain. Maybe it is just as well that the privilege of knowing people like Ross McGinnis and his family should be reserved for those who can appreciate the value and significance of sacrifice for one’s friends and country.
I had never met Ross Andrew McGinnis. I have known soldiers like him and they are truly a joy to behold. They make being an infantryman fun. In garrison they will drive their superiors crazy. In a gunfight there is no one you would rather have by you side. They squeeze life for every minute of mirth that can be had; and the next moment they will stare death in the eye and never blink. We, as Blue Spaders, welcome Ross’ parents into our Association. Having come to know them I can understand Ross’ action in combat. I find them truly inspirational.