Sgt. Thomas Block and fellow Rangers from 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment were patrolling in southern Afghanistan, on a mission to root out insurgents planning suicide bombing attacks. They entered a compound and saw a man and woman sitting in the courtyard.
The man was dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, while a woman – or possibly a man in a woman’s disguise – wore a burka and was suspiciously wrapped in a wool blanket.
Block, our 2014 Soldier of the Year, ordered the man to walk toward him with hands up.
As the man approached, Block grabbed him, and that’s when the woman jumped up and detonated the bomb strapped to her body. Block instantly used the male insurgent as a shield, but still was thrown 35 feet into a minefield, severely wounded. Four other soldiers died on that mission, and nearly two dozen others were wounded.
That was less than 10 months ago. Yet Block has battled back from his wounds, learning to walk again and enduring six surgeries, with at least four more to go. Doctors rebuilt his ocular bone, his nose and his cheekbone, which is now fitted with a titanium plate. They worked to preserve the vision in Block’s left and remaining eye, which now sees at 20/60.
Look at his right eye and you will it is a prosthetic bearing Captain America’s shield.
“He doesn’t like bullies,” says Block, “and neither do I.”
“He’s the guy that people hear his story and see an example of courage and bravery. Regardless of his age and rank, he sets a phenomenal example.”
Capt. Peter Leszczynski, Sgt. Block’s company commander.
Block, 27, is an inspiration not only to his fellow Rangers, but throughout the Army. He’s spoken at leadership courses, mentored fellow wounded warriors and motivated soldiers to stay in the Army, despite the cutbacks and budget uncertainty. He’s even counseled the Oakland Raiders about resilience, perseverance and recovery.
Block is the kind of soldier Rangers want to follow, says his company commander.
“He shows up between operations and appointments just to talk to the guys and motivate them,” Block’s captain told Army Times. “When he walks in the door with his glass eye and his PTs, and he tells you that he’s just bench pressed 315 pounds, there’s not a guy in the room who’s not pumped up about it.”
Block would rather credit his fellow soldiers for their heroism – for saving his life on Oct. 5, 2013 - when they navigated a trap-laden compound to rescue him. And for continuing to motivate him today.
Despite his injuries, Block’s goal is to remain a Ranger, and also earn a college degree.
“This is hard, but it’s doable,” Block said. “I’m not going to let this be an excuse to hold me back. That’s going to be the example I’m going to set for everybody around me, and hopefully I can inspire, motivate in any way possible.”