Make sure to tune into 'Beyond the Gridiron' this Saturday at 11 AM on KARE 11 to watch a feature on Block.
MINNEAPOLIS — The explosion launched him 35 feet into a minefield, took his right eye, collapsed his left lung, broke his foot and gave him multiple burn and shrapnel wounds, but it's clear within five minutes of meeting Army Ranger Tom Block that he is a more powerful force.
Sgt. Block is a slice of Americana and a hero to his nation. He arrived at a recent interview wearing a baseball cap that is nicely broken in, a white Under Armour training shirt stretched by a muscular frame and blue jeans with a belt buckle featuring an eagle and quote about courage that was made famous by John Wayne. Block's right arm has a similar tattoo, which preceded the belt buckle and was drawn during his first deployment by another soldier.
Block's actions and words reveal a determined man with a remarkably positive outlook since his life changed more than 13 months ago in Afghanistan. It was Oct. 5, 2013, a day after his birthday when Block was on a mission that was quite similar to those he had accomplished with Rangers during his four overseas deployments (two in Iraq, two in Afghanistan) in four years.
Their helicopter landed, and he approached two people standing near a building. As he was detaining an insurgent, a suicide bomber ran toward them and detonated the device within 8 feet of Block. The second explosion Block heard claimed the lives of four Rangers, and nearly two dozen were injured during the mission. Block was rescued, returned to American soil and began his recovery and rehabilitation with resolve.
"It's brought a lot of challenges, new territory for me as far as mental toughness that I had to gain in order to be where I'm at mentally and physically," Block said. "I figured right off the bat, I could take two routes, this is just days after waking up in Walter Reed, I figured I could sit here and complain about my situation and feel down on myself and all this stuff, or I can bounce back and be a stronger man for it, improve my position and set an example for others to follow.
"I looked at it that if I laid down and gave up, that would be how the terrorists would win," Block continued. "They didn't kill me that night, and I'm not going to let them kill me in heart or spirit. My positive attitude is a direct reflection of that mentality I have that I won't be beaten by them or anyone else, so that's kind of how I look at it and the standard I want to set for others to aspire to."
That doesn't mean Block's recovery didn't come without testing moments. His foot injury confined him to a wheelchair, but he has since regained the ability to walk. He's had multiple facial surgeries and has a prosthetic eyeball that features Captain America's shield.
"I'm a very active person and being confined to a wheelchair for a short time was almost too much for me, and I'm not taking away from anyone who is in that position now and has been for a long period of time," Block said. "I just know what it's like, and my heart goes out to them because I just couldn't do it. It was frustrating for me because I had to learn a new patience that I didn't yet know and I had to be patient with myself and patient with my recovery because there were times when I just wanted to go full out and go 100 percent at whatever I was doing and I had to realize I had to take my time in healing before I could do certain things, and there's still certain things I can't do physically to this day."
Motivated by memories of the Rangers who paid the ultimate sacrifice, Block wants to show his appreciation by positively impacting soldiers and civilians. He has spoken at leadership courses and mentored other Wounded Warriors to speak of the merits of resilience and is currently in charge of the weight room at Fort Benning. Block recently bench-pressed 350 pounds three reps and said he's seen soldiers increase their commitments to physical strength.
"That's benefited me, and I know it's benefited a few of the guys as well because they come in and work out when I work out and they see how hard I'm pushing myself, even though I'm maybe not pushing as much weight as they are, but I'm still giving it everything I've got, and that doesn't give them an excuse to slack off," Block said. "Therefore, we raise the bar and we have a lot of guys in the weight room now that I haven't seen before, and you can tell it's a force multiplier. You can see our unit getting a lot better."
For his perseverance and inspiration to others, Block was selected by peers as Army Times' 2014 Soldier of the Year.
"He's the guy that people hear his story and see an example of courage and bravery," Capt. Peter Leszczynski, Sgt. Block's company commander, told Army Times. "Regardless of his age and rank, he sets a phenomenal example."
The Vikings were proud to honor Block, a Waseca native who is stationed with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga., this past Sunday when he sounded the Gjallarhorn before Minnesota hosted Green Bay for the Vikings annual Salute to Service game. He appeared on Vikings Connected via a Skype session from a deer stand during a hunt in Kentucky, and is featured on this week's *Beyond the Gridiron *episode.
"It's really cool because you spend your whole life watching the games and not really participating more than a fan to cheer on the team, and to kind of be part of the show more than anything is really cool," Block said the day before the game. "I went to college at MSU-Mankato so I get to see these guys at their training camp, and some of them I've talked to a little bit, nothing special other than say, 'Hey,' a little bit when you're walking by them. They're always kind to me and everything, and being a part of this game is pretty cool, especially because it's against the Packers."
"A way of life"
Block said he always wanted to serve in the military because his grandpa was a Marine in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
"I was always fascinated with it," Block said. "I grew up playing war and had a BB gun in my hand at the age of 8, wearing camouflage and going out in the woods and hunting and stalking my prey and everything like that. I grew up living and breathing that kind of stuff so to finally do it in 2010 was kind of a dream come true, that they were going to pay me to workout, carry a machine gun, ride around in helicopters and planes and jump out of them and do things to bad people was a dream job for me. I loved it."
Block said he has great pride in the Rangers because of the extensive and intensive training, the missions they are assigned and the group's accomplishments.
"We're constantly training and living and breathing our job," Block said. "I would go to work across the street from where I lived. I never left work, really. It's a lifestyle, a mentality. It's amazing. It's not drilled into you like some other units.
"It's definitely a way of life, and you take pride in it because you want to be the best because you're with the best," he continued. "You don't want to be that guy because you don't want to let your buddy down when the time comes. That's something I told my guys I was in charge of, 'There's stuff you need to learn here so that you can perform when something bad happens,' and something bad happened, and my boys didn't let me down. They showed up and they were ready to fight."
Block said he originally wanted to be a Sgt. Major with more than 20 years of service, but the vision loss he has suffered will likely keep him from being the Ranger he wants to be because "you need that with the kind of job we do because a lot happens really fast." He is currently evaluating his options for continuing to best serve his unit and nation.
"As far as I'm concerned, there's no higher honor than serving your country," Block said. "A lot of people tell me I've done a lot already, but it's not over. It's never over because we've got to provide for our future, and our future is in our kids that are just going into school and newborns, the ones that are just graduating high school or college and just getting out there.
"We as a nation can't forget that there's people out there that still may not like us and they don't like us because we're better than them," Block continued. "We're America, and we have our shortfalls and everything, but I've traveled around and seen different places and we're doing it pretty good. Freedom isn't free, and there's going to be people like me that are going to have to ensure that, and as long as I'm around and can have some kind of influence on that, I will. If that's not in the Army, it might be somewhere else, but I want to make sure I can have a good influence on people that either want to serve their country in some capacity — it doesn't have to be in the military but maybe in some kind of public office or other arena, just be there to motivate people that want to better us as a whole."