By Ketrell Marshall
When Jason Church played his last football game at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, on a November afternoon in 2010, he knew he would return to Roger Harring Stadium someday, perhaps to enjoy a game with his family.
But the U.S. Army officer never imagined that his return would be greeted with the heartwarming welcome of a hushed and grateful crowd. At halftime of the Nov. 12, 2012, matchup again UW-Whitewater, Church stood on two new prosthetic legs to receive the Purple Heart Award from his father, Col. David Church.
Church juggled football with his interest in history and political science and the physical and mental rigors of La Crosse’s ROTC program.
“The moment my father pinned the Purple Heart to my chest in front of the home crowd was surreal. It is almost hard for me to even explain,” Church said. “I am usually not someone who is at a loss for words, but at that time I was most certainly speechless.”
Church will be honored with the NCAA Inspiration Award in January at the NCAA Convention in San Diego. The award is presented to a coach or administrator currently associated with intercollegiate athletics, or to a current or former varsity letter winner at an NCAA institution. It is reserved for people who, when confronted with a life-altering situation, used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome or deal with the event.
Jason grew up in Menomonie, Wis., about two hours north of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Football and proximity to home were factors for Church when deciding where to attend college, and he was also enthusiastic to enroll in the university’s ROTC program. Church’s ROTC scholarship assisted him with the cost of school and required that he enlist after graduating.
When Church enrolled at La Crosse in the fall of 2007, his country was deep into two wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—with no clear end in sight. Five days after graduating in May of 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Church reported to Ft. Benning, Ga., to the army officer training that would bring him one step closer to the battlefield.
With a college degree in hand, Church could have taken a U.S. Army position that kept him from the front lines. But he chose to be a battlefield infantry officer, hoping to take advantage of the 250-pound frame he had developed as a college football player. Church also enrolled in Army Ranger School, spending weeks marching and performing drills in the mountains of northern Georgia and the swamps of Florida.
“There has always been a strong inclination for me to serve,” said Church. “My father serves in the Army, and ever since I was a little kid my dream was to serve this country and to do it in uniform. Growing up with my father’s influence, it was just natural for me to enlist in the military. My service in uniform is my biggest contribution to this country so far. There is nothing else that can compare.”
Church’s military transport touched down in Kandahar Airfield on May 6, 2012. Five months later, Church set out on what would be his final mission. He led 30 men through the Horn of Panjwai in Afghanistan, a place where each soldier knew the ground beneath him could erupt at any moment. The soldiers in Church’s platoon had been assigned to clear a route northeast of their base. En route, they came across an abandoned settlement littered with vacant homes and strange rock formations—a landscape that looked suspicious to Church’s platoon. The only way out involved maneuvering through multiple rows of 6-foot-tall walls, built of mud and spaced only a few feet apart from each other.
While approaching the first wall one of the soldiers stepped on an improvised explosive device. It malfunctioned and caused no damage,but alerted the platoon to the likelihood that other IEDs had been planted and could be triggered with one bad step. For Church, the options were grim: Turning around was not safe, given that the mine sweepers and detectors designed to track IEDs hadn’t noticed this one and could not be counted on in this situation. The only way around the walls, Church decided, was through them. Summoning the skills of a former Division III fullback, Church prepared to throw his body at the first of many mud walls he would have to topple to clear a path for his platoon.
He took one step toward the wall. And then, an explosion. Fire. Smoke filled the air.
The detonated IED caused Church to lose both legs below the knee. Following his injury, Church endured more than 20 surgeries and was fitted for prosthetics.
“It was tough. It taught me a lot about dealing with adversity and perseverance,” said Church. “There are a lot of things that go through your mind, but when it came down to it you realize that it is just another hurdle in a race.”
Today Church, a 2011 graduate of Wisconsin-La Crosse and first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, occasionally speaks to organizations, schools and businesses around the nation. He relays his story of leadership, teamwork and sacrifice.
Church especially takes pride in helping others and providing people with the motivation they need to get past life’s hardships and meet their goals.
“There is so much that we encounter in this world and many hurdles that we come upon. There are numerous situations that can be thrown at you even if nobody is really prepared for it,” Church said. “At the end of the day everything is relative and you can overcome whatever is thrown at you. If you’re in the military, on the football field or in the office somewhere, something is going to come up that you’re not expecting. Something is going to come up that totally blindsides you or, in my case, is life-altering. That by no means needs to define who you are, nor does it need to stop you from the goal that you need to achieve.”