Recent brain surgery and learning how to walk a straight line again are just the latest in a long string of challenges that would put any Airman’s resilience to the test. Yet, Col John Blocher couldn’t be happier despite the twists and turns his life has taken him since the very beginning of his Air Force career.
The surgery corrected an inner ear issue that was affecting Blocher’s balance, making it difficult to walk properly.
“They went in through my skull cavity because one of my semi-circular canals is all kinds of screwed up,” he said. “I literally don’t know which way is up.”
Blocher, military assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, said his walking has much improved since surgery and he is back at work at the Pentagon.
“I think if I hadn’t been through events and life experiences that challenged my resiliency, I’d probably be in a far worse place,” he said.
In 2002, as a fresh-faced A-10 pilot just out of flight school, he arrived at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, where his new squadron was preparing to deploy to Iraq. Instead of going with them, Blocher was told he was deploying with the Army…and not as a pilot.
“I still remember my flight commander calling me in right before Christmas break in 2002 and saying we’re deploying to Kuwait.” The commander said from there, they were slated to fight in Iraq but that he wasn’t going with them.
Instead, Blocher deployed to Iraq as an air liaison officer and Forward Air Controller with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, one of the first military units to roll into Iraq in 2003. The news came as a shock to Blocher, who said he was mentally unprepared to do anything other than flying, the focus of his career since his Air Force Academy graduation.
“In reality, it’s sort of walking through the stages of grief,” he said. “You start with denial for a while and then there’s anger and frustration. Finally you get to acceptance.”
When he reached the acceptance stage, Blocher wasn’t just determined to do his job, he was determined to do it well. He rolled into Iraq in an armored vehicle at the beginning of the second Persian Gulf War in March.
From there, Blocher said he controlled a lot of airplanes from the ground where he had some extremely close calls. For example, during one particularly harrowing incident, Blocher said he was in the middle of controlling an airplane while his own vehicle was under a heavy artillery attack. Fearing imminent death, all the young officer thought in that moment was staying alive long enough to direct aircraft to whatever was shooting at his vehicle.
“I expected war to look like a video game because that’s what it looks like through a HUD [heads-up display], instead I saw war at a distance where you smelled it, you saw it, you experienced it,” he recalled.
There were several more heart-stopping moments during that first deployment in Iraq but there is one moment for which he has the most regret and frustration about.
Blocher said the battalion had just finished a major fight in Baghdad and had come to a tactical pause when he took a nap for a couple of hours. He awoke and walked back to his station just in time to see a squadron mate take enemy fire over Baghdad with someone else controlling aircraft on his radio and frequency.
“How do you live with that?” said Blocher, to this day unable to find an answer
Instead he finds himself asking questions like, “Is it my fault? Did I go take a nap at the wrong time? Did I not pass the brief to them so they didn’t understand that now is not the time for aircraft?
In other words, “Did I just get one of my squadron mates shot down?”
Although the pilot eventually landed the disabled aircraft, he was wracked by guilt for not being the one on the microphone when his pilot needed him. It was a life-changing experience, he said.
Blocher went into the Air Force dreaming of becoming a pilot but came out of the war determined to be a great leader.
Years later, he put his skills and experience to work leading Airmen as an Air Support Operations Squadron Commander. Yet, Blocher’s memories of war remain. He describes himself as having PTS - post traumatic stress. He differentiates it from PTSD because, according to him, he has learned how to deal with the stress, and uses those very difficult experiences to help others.
Channeling his painful experiences into a positive message was not something he planned to do, he admitted. But about seven years ago, his wing commander asked him to fill in at the last moment as guest speaker for a resiliency day. Until that point, Blocher had only really talked about his ordeal in Iraq with his wife and the pastor of his church.
“What I found is that as I stood up and told my story in front of a bunch of fighter pilots and aspiring fighter pilots, it actually was something that was incredibly freeing for me,” he said.
“It was a new way to process it, get through some of the stuff that I had not dealt with, not addressed and not thought about.”
In a twist of fate, he turned a very difficult and challenging ordeal into something that could be shared with others, and that others could empathize with through their own experiences, which was very helpful to him.
Since then, Blocher has spoken to a number of audiences. His mission is to help his fellow Airmen and Guardians who may be suffering as he did, get to a better place.
“I have stood in front of my squadron and said I’m on your side. If you need help, if you are willing to step out and seek help, then I’m going to do everything in my power so that it is temporary, so that we can get you what you need and get you back into the fight,” said Blocher.
Pilot training, embedding with an Army infantry division, then going back to flying, to eventually taking on another career change to Joint Terminal Attack Controller, Blocher has managed to roll with the punches throughout his career. He describes himself as happy because he has balance – something he preaches to his squadron.
“Because life is going to take you out at the knees. Life is going to happen. My newest example is I just had brain surgery,” he said. “That’s not a typical experience. But it was not a traumatic one and the reason was because I knew ahead of time that my life has to have the right balance of work and family, spiritual and physical and everything.”
Blocher calls his advice preemptive. He is currently not qualified to fly a plane because of his recent surgery, and may never be qualified to fly again. If all of his identity was wrapped up in his work, Blocher said he might feel broken, as if he had no future.
His work is only a part of who he is, he said, adding that he has a great family, he has a career outside of flying that is still meaningful and fulfilling, and he has faith that will pull him through.
“Invest in your family, invest in your faith, invest in those things that when life takes you out at the knees, you still know why you do what you do and what matters in life.”