The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After confronting a suicide bomber, this soldier must swap running for the Medal of Honor

Army Capt. Florent Groberg had a weird feeling about the mission as soon as his team arrived by helicopter that morning in Afghanistan’s Konar province. Something seemed out of place. Someone, he surmised, was out to get them.

Minutes later, Groberg made a split-second decision and rushed at a man who was strangely backpedaling toward the Army patrol. Groberg didn’t know for sure there was a suicide vest underneath the man’s dark clothing until he grabbed him by the chest — and by then, his only choice was to bring him to the ground right before the man detonated.

“I hit him, grabbed him, tried to push him as far away and throw him to the ground,” said Groberg, 32. “It happened so fast. That’s the thing. People are asking me, ‘What were you thinking? What were you guys thinking?’ You don’t have time to think. You react. Thirty seconds, the entire scene. Eight seconds from the time I see him and he’s detonating. That’s how fast.”

Groberg’s quick reaction on Aug. 8, 2012, will result in his receiving the Medal of Honor, the nation’s top award for valor in combat. President Obama is expected to drape the award around the soldier’s neck on Thursday at the White House, just a few miles from where Groberg ran track at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., and at the University of Maryland-College Park.

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The attack was a life-changing moment for many people. Four men — Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin J. Griffin, 46; Army Maj. Thomas E. Kennedy, 35; Air Force Maj. Walter D. Gray, 38, and foreign service officer Ragaei Abdelfattah, 43 — were killed, and several others were severely wounded. Groberg suffered life-threatening injuries to his left leg that led to 33 surgeries. Half of his calf muscle was blown off, leaving a man who once dreamed of competing in the Olympics with chronic nerve pain, a limp and questions about whether an amputation makes sense someday.

“I’m waiting for the iRobot type of legs, you know, that goes into your nerves and it just plugs it in and you can take it off and it’s three times stronger than my right leg,” Groberg said. “Once that comes around, I’ll probably go in there and be like, ‘Look, I’m done with the pain and I would like to go running again.’ But until then, I’ll suck it up.”

Groberg will become the 10th living American to receive the Medal of Honor for actions since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Twelve service members have received the medals for actions in Afghanistan, including three posthumously. Of those, 10 came from actions within a few dozen miles of each other in bordering Konar and Nuristan provinces. Four more service members earned the Medal of Honor in Iraq, all of whom received it posthumously.

Groberg, who often goes by “Flo,” was on his second deployment to Afghanistan when the attack occurred. He was serving as the personal security detachment commander for the brigade commander, then-Col. James J. Mingus, and Griffin, the senior enlisted soldier in the unit. Groberg’s team traveled across eastern Afghanistan from Jalalabad Airfield nearly daily with the leaders as they met Afghan officials and other coalition units.

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The soldiers, primarily of Fort Carson, Colo., flew into a small base known as Fiaz in the morning with plans to move on foot to the nearby compound of the provincial governor in Asadabad district. The security detachment typically patrolled in a diamond formation with the brigade’s leaders in the center and Groberg in the back, but a premonition made him move near the front of the patrol that day.

The patrol reached a small bridge over a canal and was approached by men on motorcycles coming from the opposite direction — possibly members of the Taliban. They began crossing the bridge but stopped partway and retreated in the opposite direction. The suicide bomber appeared on foot to the left of the patrol after coming out of a building. Groberg ran at him and threw him to the ground with the help of another soldier, Sgt. Andrew Mahoney, who would later receive the Silver Star for his valor.

The explosion ripped into the patrol, but short of the center of the diamond where it would have inflicted the most carnage. As Groberg was flung into the air, a second suicide bomber nearby also detonated his vest prematurely, but the explosion still ripped through the soldiers.

“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Groberg said. “Everything was just going so slow. And then like – Zoom! So fast, and you’re back in it and it’s ‘What happened to me?’ And I’m laying on the ground with my assault pack propping me up.”

Groberg had a ruptured ear drum and a traumatic brain injury in addition to his leg wound, and he was in shock. He initially thought he had stepped on an improvised explosive device buried in the ground, but he started to figure out what had happened when he realized he was covered in blood and bone fragments that weren’t his own.

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Sgt. 1st Class Brian Brink scrambled to pull Groberg to safety, and the team medic, Spec. Daniel Balderrama, treated Groberg’s leg despite dealing with torn knee ligaments of his own because of the blast.

“Balderrama saved my life, in my opinion,” Groberg said, speaking rapidly during a recent interview at the Pentagon. “Brink did, too, for dragging me. But Balderrama is the one who put a tourniquet on me and kept me awake. I could have gone into a coma, from my understanding, because I had lost so much blood. But he was there for me. It’s just one of those things where you’re so impressed by him, and you’re so grateful.”

A younger soldier in the unit, Pfc. Eric Ochart, also kept the wounded Groberg from doing anything rash after the explosion when an Afghan man was grinning at the remains of the four men who died, Groberg said.

“I was angry and not thinking, obviously. I’m not sure what would have happened, but here’s the thing: To not have to worry about it because I have professionals who were around me,” Groberg said of Ochart. “He grabbed my arm and I guess he read my mind, because he was like, ‘It’s not worth it, sir.”

The men hit by the blasts scattered in different directions afterward. Groberg spent nearly three years at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, about three miles down Old Georgetown Road from where he attended high school. The surgeries were painful, but there also was the matter of making peace with what happened.

“It’s not a day that you go out and have beers, throw back beers, and talk about it with your boys,” Groberg said. “My guys, everybody struggled with it for a while.”

In some ways, the injuries have brought the captain full circle, and back to Washington for a third time. Groberg is the son of a former Motorola Iridium executive, Larry, and a French-Algerian mother, Klara, and spent most of his early childhood living in France and speaking French. The family moved to the United States when Groberg was about 11, first to the Chicago suburbs and then to Potomac, Md.

Groberg initially was enrolled at the Lycee Rochambeau French International School in nearby Chevy Chase, but transitioned to public school in eighth grade as his English improved. High school, he said, was relatively easy, and he earned a track scholarship to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington afterward in 2001.

His experience in North Carolina was mixed, however. Within a semester, he decided that the beach town school had too many distractions for him, and he looked north to attend the University of Maryland-College Park. There was no scholarship for him there, though — in fact, he had to wait for a spot to open before he could even join the track team, he said.

“I did so many jobs,” Groberg said of how he paid for school. “But actually, the main job was police auxiliary for three years, 3 ½ years up there. I was that guy that would go around in that vehicle that did not give parking tickets, but everyone thought I gave parking tickets and kept yelling at me about this. Like, ‘Why did you give me a parking ticket?’ Like, if I could really give parking tickets, I’d give you TWO parking tickets right now.”

Groberg graduated in 2006 with a degree in criminology and criminal justice and his name in several distance running record books. It took two years for him to join the Army in part because he needed to decide whether he would renounce his French citizenship, a requirement to have the security clearance of an Army officer, he said. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2001, a few months before graduating from high school.

The captain was a patient at Walter Reed for nearly three years until this May, and retired medically in July after entertaining ways that he might continue to serve in the Army. He plans to settle in Washington and work at the Pentagon in defense policy, but aspects of that were put on hold when it was decided he would receive the Medal of Honor, he said.

President Obama called Groberg a few weeks ago to let him know he would receive one of the country’s highest distinctions. The soldier would have preferred receiving the Army’s second-highest award for combat valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, because of its lower profile. But he realizes there is a responsibility that goes with the higher award.

“No doubt I will always be the same person, but it’s a challenge, you know, and I have great people around me who will smack me upside the head if I start saying some crazy stuff,” he said. He chuckled, and then added: “It’s a weird feeling.”

Kelyn Soong contributed to this report.