From Pins to Medals

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On the mats of Rummy Macias Wrestling Complex on the campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato, the foundation of an American hero was built.

It was there that Tom Block learned what he could be, before becoming all he could be.

“The best thing about being a wrestler is that you learn about adversity,” Block says. “You learn what you’re capable of as a man. And you learn to pull your own weight as a part of a team. If you don’t succeed on the mat, someone else has to pick up the slack. Any day in the wrestling room was just as hard as any day I spent in the Army. I had been prepared by wrestling to handle adversity, and that made my transition into the Army easy for me.”

Block was born and raised on a southern Minnesota farm and wrestled at Waseca High School, where he made the state final and captained the Blue Jays team his senior season. He was ready to enlist in the Army immediately following graduation before being offered a scholarship to wrestle as a Maverick.

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“Plus, I could be close to home, help out on the farm, and my family could come watch me wrestle,” Block recalls. “And there was a really good recruiting class coming in that I was pretty excited to be a part of.

“When I got the opportunity to wrestle in college I wasn’t going to give that up. I just wanted to take wrestling as far as it was going to take me and succeed at it as much as I could.”

While studying construction management, Block wrestled for the Mavericks from 2005-09, and in 2008 was a part of the team that won the National Duals, a meet featuring the top 16 Division II teams in the country. After his collegiate athletics career ended, it was time to re-engage the previous plan to serve his country. In 2010, he joined the Army.

Block flourished from the moment he laced up his boots, earning his Ranger contract while in boot camp, attending the prerequisite airborne school and finally the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program, where his performance commanded attention. He was one of 38 in his class of 160 to graduate the program, earning not only the tan beret reserved for the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, but also several significant awards recognizing superior achievement in the program.

His fourth deployment was to southern Afghanistan, where Block’s fast track military career hit a roadblock in October 2013.

“It was a deployment just like any other except it was a more high profile mission in the sense that we were going after people who had already tried to perform suicide bombings,” Block explains.

While attempting to root out insurgents, Sgt. Block and fellow Rangers entered a compound and saw a man and woman sitting in the courtyard. Block ordered the man to walk toward him with hands up and grabbed him when he approached. That’s when the woman ran towards Block. When she was just eight feet away from him, she detonated the bomb strapped to her body.

Block was blown back 35 feet and landed in a minefield, severely injured. Four soldiers died on that mission. More than 20 others were wounded.

Since that day, Block’s ability to overcome adversity and push himself to new limits—skills he attributes to his wrestling career—have been tested in ways most could not imagine. Of course, he’s passed every one of those tests.

Block has endured six surgeries so far; there may be as many left to go. He learned to walk again. Doctors rebuilt his ocular bone. His nose. And his cheekbone, which is now fitted with a titanium plate. He lost his right eye. The vision in his left has been preserved to a point that he can see at 20/60.

TomBlock copyBut perhaps the most remarkable part of his story is the positivity with which he is able to tell it. The Army Times named Block its 2014 Soldier of the Year, in part because of the inspiration he offers not only to fellow Rangers but throughout the U.S. Army.

“When people want to talk to me about my experience, I just try to accommodate,” Block says. “I just try to take 10 minutes here and there to talk to them and convey a positive attitude.”

Surgeries and award ceremonies have the Army Ranger’s schedule pretty full at the moment. But there’s something else he’s been wrestling with lately. Something that just might bring him back to where this story began.

“I’m going to finish up my degree as soon as I can,” Block says. “I want to finish what I started there. It’s the only thing I really regret in my life, is not finishing my college education. I don’t really regret much of anything in my life. But I want to finish that up. In a bad way.”