Gordon Bierschenk was in the Army's Special Forces and received a Silver Star during the Gulf War. He started as an enlisted man and retired as a major in military intelligence. He now teaches in that field at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

Bierschenk's son, also Gordon, was asked if Dad was hard-nosed around the home front.

"He's not a loud person, but he did let you know the meaning of hard work," the younger Gordon said. "We were at Fort Bragg when I was in grade school. I think we had the biggest yard in the state.

"My job on Saturdays was to rake that lawn. I don't know if you're aware, but in North Carolina, it's all pine needles. My friends would ride past on their bikes and say, 'Gordie, come on, let's play.' I'd say, 'I have to rake these dang pine needles.' "

Bierschenk smiled at the memory of those moments and said: "I didn't like my father much as I raked for five, six hours, but it taught me you have to take care of your responsibilities."

He learned another lesson years later in the University of Minnesota wrestling room.

He had been a high school wrestler in Waynesville, Mo. "I was completely unsatisfied with the way I finished my senior year," he said. "I didn't even place in the state tournament. I wanted to prove to myself that I was better than that. And there was no wrestling program to top Minnesota for testing yourself."

The Gophers have an open walk-on program and Bierschenk did so after enrolling for fall semester in 2003. On Day 1 in the wrestling room, he was put on the mat with Jake Volkmann.

"Jake made me cry," Bierschenk said.

Cry? "I wasn't sobbing, but I couldn't do anything against Jake, and he wasn't someone to show any mercy," Bierschenk said. "He manhandled me so badly -- showed me how far I was from being a real wrestler -- that I had tears in my eyes."

Bierschenk was in the ROTC program at Minnesota. When he tried to enlist in the Army National Guard, the medics turned him down because of a concave sternum. Presumably, this was genetic and not from that first session with Jarrin' Jake.

Bierschenk underwent complex surgery to repair the problem. He wasn't allowed to wrestle until spring semester in 2005, and then only lightly.

The National Guard accepted Gordon and he went through basic training that summer. He didn't get back in time for fall semester. Then, in spring semester of 2006, he knew a deployment with his Guard unit was forthcoming and didn't wrestle.

He was in Iraq for 11 months in Anbar Province. "The first six months there were a lot of incidents, and then the surge came and it quieted down," he said. "We came back as we left -- 160 strong."

Bierschenk's deployment ended in October 2007. Again, he was late for fall semester and then enrolled in the spring of 2008.

"I spent some time in the wrestling room, but not as part of the team," he said.

Now 23, Bierschenk rejoined the Gophers last fall as an academic senior majoring in physiology. He shared the 197-pound spot with junior Chris MacPhail through the national duals in mid-January.

He endured a six-match losing streak that included losses to three nationally ranked 197-pounders.

"I wrestled some big boys, that's for sure, but it also was attitude," Bierschenk said. "Maybe I didn't believe in myself.

"The results didn't change until I convinced myself -- that I was the 197-pounder for the University of Minnesota, that I deserved to be here, and I could wrestle with anybody."

That transformation appeared to take place last weekend. It was Bierschenk's pin of J.R. Brown that put the 10th-ranked Gophers ahead in a 20-19 victory at Penn State. Two days later, his 5-2 decision over Cody Gardner was vital in an 18-16 upset at No. 5 Ohio State.

The reward for Bierschenk -- an Iraq War veteran back on the mat after what was basically a four-year absence -- was to be named the Big Ten's wrestler of the week.

"I don't want to be satisfied to be in the Gophers lineup," he said. "I want to be in the national tournament ... to be an All-American. A Minnesota wrestler has to have that attitude."

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • preusse@startribune.com