Most men—and nearly all military men—his age had retired. But at age 66, Robert Blok ’65 was riding through Baghdad in a Humvee with three fellow members of the U.S. Army’s 118th Battalion, 1st Cavalry Infantry Division. A doctor in the Army Reserves, in November 2009 he was on his fourth deployment to Iraq.
He traces his urge for combat service to a January day half a century earlier.
“When I heard President Kennedy say, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,’ that really touched me. I had a feeling that, for me, the Army would be the best way to serve.”
He enrolled at Calvin, still set on joining the infantry. But “through the wonderful mentorship of ‘Doc’ DeVries and Harry Bengilink” he caught a fascination “for the medical sciences, and one thing led to another.”
After medical school, an internship and residency in anesthesiology, finally, in 1974, he said, “I fulfilled my lifelong dream of becoming an officer in the U.S. Army.”
For the next 30 years he served not only as an anesthesiologist at various Army medical centers, but also, after training in aerospace medicine, as a command flight surgeon and then as a division surgeon. He liked it all, but, he said, “Everything you do in the Army is to get ready for action, and I hadn’t seen any.”
After turning 60, Blok transitioned from the regular Army to the Reserves, where, as a medical officer, he could continue working. It was 2004. The war in Iraq was intensifying. Blok asked if there was an opening for an anesthesiologist in a combat hospital.
“They said, ‘No,’” he remembered, “‘but we have a spot in the infantry.’”
Six months later he was in Baghdad, a battalion surgeon, “going outside the wire with the guys.” The experience got under his skin, in his blood, inside his head.
“Anybody who was there has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. The weird thing is, in Iraq, I wasn’t nervous; I didn’t have nightmares or night sweats. Here is where I have symptoms. It’s hard to explain, but you feel your very best in a combat zone.”
Three more times Blok asked to be deployed to Iraq. In 2007 and again in 2008–09, he served as an anesthesiologist at combat support hospitals. In 2009 he was back in Baghdad with the infantry.
The last thing he remembers about Nov. 6, 2009, is the explosion. An improvised explosive device (IED) blew up beneath the Humvee ahead of his, killing the four soldiers in it. He woke up the next day in an Air Force hospital in Balad, Iraq, that specialized in neurological injuries.
For those injuries—a retinal tear that impairs the vision in his left eye and cognitive memory loss from the brain trauma—Blok was awarded the Purple Heart. All his research indicates he is the award’s oldest ever recipient.
He’s 70 now, retired from the Army but working full time as an anesthesiologist at the W.G. “Bill” Hefner VA Medical Center near Charlotte, N.C. He has to write things in a logbook, or he forgets them. But Army neurologists assure him he can work safely.
“Maybe 70 percent of our patients are Vietnam vets,” he said. “I like being with them. I think it helps them, too. You don’t have to say much. You tell them where you were, they tell you where they were, and you feel the connection. It’s a bond that goes beyond words.”