Spirit of Service recipient mentors young athletes

Benjamin Forsberg is at home on the wrestling mat.

In a small converted former church in Rose Hill, Kan., Forsberg commands attention from his young proteges – about two dozen elementary and middle schoolers – who are soaking in the basics of wrestling during a recent practice.

Forsberg, a staff sergeant with the Kansas Air National Guard, does more than teach double-leg takedowns, sprawls and other moves. He instills confidence, discipline and teamwork.

“That’s the reason I coach — to see the kids grow personally as well as in the sport. It’s really cool to see that once this 9-year-old kid graduates high school, he’s going to be successful at whatever he does because of what his parents and this community has taught him. And to be a part of that is cool.”

For his volunteer efforts, Forsberg received The American Legion’s Spirit of Service Award at the 101st national convention this past August in Indianapolis.

“I was pretty shocked,” Forsberg recalled upon reading an email that he would receive the award. “It was unexpected but it was a great honor.”

He cherishes the experience at the convention in Indianapolis. “Everyone at The American Legion who saw me in uniform knew why I was there and shook my hand, gave me a look in the eye and thanked me for my service. It was really humbling to be around all of those veterans who were looking at me and thanking me for my service. It was awesome.”

Forsberg started his wrestling career at age 5 — “a little guy with a mullet.” Now he gives back to boys and girls interested in the sport. He has played an integral part in growing the South Central Punishers wrestling program from 26 to 140 participants in about five years. Two years ago, the Punishers won the state tournament, a vast improvement over their 133rd place just five years ago.

The core group is kindergarten through eighth-graders. After the high school season, those wrestlers join the program.

“I had some great coaches as a kid, who mentored me along because I wasn’t very good when I started out,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of struggles in life, battles that everybody has. I look back at my time wrestling and the way you have to approach the sport of wrestling in order to be successful is similar to how you have to approach life in order to get through hard times. More than teaching kids how to be great wrestlers, I want to teach them how to approach life.”

Former Punishers are now wrestling in college, including in Division I schools. Two Punishers are wrestling for Oklahoma State, which entered the season as the fourth-ranked team in the NCAA.

Forsberg, who joined the guard six years ago at age 24, loves his role as an intelligence analyst. He draws a correlation between what he learned on the mat to how he applies himself in service.

“I was in a leadership role on wrestling teams,” he recalled. “I had that work ethic from wrestling that gives me that blue-collar attitude.”

Kansas Air National Guard Lt. Col. James Bilby recruited Forsberg first to join the Guard and later to the Punishers.

“I saw Ben as a pretty serious and focused guy,” said Bilby, who has known Forsberg since 2012. “We thought it was a good fit for him and a good fit for the Guard. It can be a tough sell these days to get guys into service. He was intrigued by working in the intelligence mission and he has taken it and run with it ever since.”

Bilby, another Punishers coach, recognized the value that Forsberg would bring to the team.

“We wanted to bring him in to help us, but it has also helped him as well,” Bilby said. “He is very good at what he does. He is focused, he has the right demeanor and the kids respond to it.”

Bilby, who was Forsberg’s commander, nominated him for the Spirit of Service award.

“I look for guys who have that grit, that toughness, who have looked adversity in the eye,” Bilby said. “We got him into the military. He’s done some awesome work so we put him in for the award. He’s very active in our community. He does a lot of things with the kids. The pay isn’t very illustrious since it’s volunteer work. It’s just a way for him to give back to a sport that has given so much to him.”

Forsberg has no intention to stop his volunteer work.

“I will continue coaching wrestling until my wife tells me to stop or my hips fall off,” he said. “I love it. Any volunteer aspects of life are great because you get the reward but you also get to help other people. It’s cool to pass on that spirit to others to carry on down the line.”