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WASHINGTON - Sgt. Thomas Block was honored July 30 as the 2014 Army Times Soldier of the Year for his tenacity, resilience and setting the bar beyond what a Ranger and Soldier should be.
Less than 10 months ago, Block was severely wounded and lost his right eye from a suicide bomb detonation in Afghanistan that hurled him 35 feet through the air. Now his recovery and drive serve as an example to others.
For the last 14 years the Military Times newspapers have honored five "everyday heroes" - service members who have demonstrated pride, dedication and courage beyond what is expected in their military duties.
At this year's presentation and reception on Capitol Hill, former congressman Chet Edwards opened the event saying not only did the winners demonstrate pride, dedication and courage; they also showed concern for their fellow service members, their communities and the country.
"They display a consistent high standard of professional performance and commitment to their communities," he said. "Their actions make a daily difference in our lives and in the world around us, and they exemplify the very best of who we are as Americans."
Following several guest speakers, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John C. Campbell addressed the crowd, saying it was an absolute honor and privilege to talk about a great Soldier.
"As we know there's strong and there's Army Strong and then there's Army Sgt. Block-Strong," Campbell said. "We instill seven core values in all of the fine young men and women who step forward to wear our uniform - loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Sgt. Block has proven himself to be the living embodiment of all those core values."
He next relayed Block's Afghanistan survival story of Oct. 5. Less than 10 months ago, Block was on patrol with 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, looking for insurgents planning suicide bombing attacks in the southern part of the country.
After entering a compound, Block saw two people sitting in the courtyard - a man dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants and the other which appeared to be a woman wearing a burka and wrapped suspiciously in a wool blanket.
Block ordered the man to approach him with his hands up. As he came forward, the Ranger grabbed the man while the woman jumped up and detonated a bomb strapped to her body. Block used the man as a shield, but was still thrown 35 feet into a minefield, severely wounded.
Doctors were able to rebuild Block's ocular bone, his nose, his cheekbone which is now fitted with a titanium plate, and they were able to preserve the vision in his left eye. He also suffered a broken ankle and lost his right eye.
"I don't know about you, but I feel really inspired by his can-do spirit," Campbell said. "While this 27-year-old Soldier is an inspiration throughout the Army and beyond, he mentors fellow wounded warriors, provides career guidance to other Soldiers, and he speaks at leadership courses. He's even counseled the Oakland Raiders about resilience, perseverance and recovery."
Despite all the accolades, Block said the attention "was humbling, very humbling." He has big plans - to continue healing, remain a Ranger, earn a bachelor's degree and marry his fiancée Janine Connors.
He had no idea he'd been nominated for the Army Times Soldier of the Year until a journalist from the paper came to interview him.
"I feel like now the good kind of pressure is on now for me to set a good example for everybody else," he said. "You always want to do the right thing, even when nobody is looking, but now people take notice of me, so if anything, I'm working harder." Even with the loss of his eye, he doesn't feel disadvantaged at all.
"Sure, well, I don't have a right eye, so my peripheral vision (gap) on my right side is completely big, really big, but I see like everyone else." He paused, then laughed. "I might run into a wall every now and then, but I mean, hey - you bounce back!"