The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ex-Terps star conquered the track, then a suicide bomber. Now he’ll get the Medal of Honor.

Retired U.S. Army Capt. Florent Groberg, pictured patrolling the city streets of Asadabad, Afghanistan, will receive the Medal of Honor on Thursday. (Alexis Ramos/AFP/Getty Images via U.S. Army)
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In a sport that values individual performances and personal records, Army Capt. Florent Groberg was at his best on the track when he knew there were people relying on him. Groberg, a standout runner at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md. and at the University of Maryland, excelled at relay races and relished the pressure that came with competing for teammates.

Running relays “is like the best feeling, because you share that moment with other people,” Groberg said during an interview with the Washington Post last week at the Pentagon. “The responsibility behind it, the pressure, but really the camaraderie and the teammates, just all combined into one. … I loved that about track, which led to the same thing in the military.”

On Thursday, Groberg, 32, will receive the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony for actions in Afghanistan in 2012 that are credited with saving multiple lives. Groberg, who medically retired from the Army in July after seven years of service, will become the 10th living service member to receive the honor for actions of valor in Afghanistan.

‘You do your job’

As head of a personal security detachment on Aug. 8, 2012, Groberg and fellow soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were tasked with the safety of 28 individuals, including high-ranking commanders, as they advanced toward the provincial governor’s residence in Asadabad, Afghanistan.

The patrol was halted near a small bridge when two motorcyclists approached from the opposite direction and stopped midway before dismounting. It was then that Groberg saw another individual in traditional Afghan male clothing slowly backpedaling towards them.

Within eight seconds of spotting the suspect, who had turned sharply at the patrol, Groberg and Sgt. Andrew Mahoney grabbed and threw him to the ground before the man detonated his suicide vest.

“That’s the instincts,” Groberg said. “All you’re thinking [is that] you got to get him away. You don’t think of the consequences. You just know that he’s a threat and he’s no good. You do your job.”

[How and why Groberg tackled a suicide bomber on Aug. 8, 2012]

Groberg does not remember being launched several feet in the air from the blast, which claimed the lives of four Americans and injured many others, but he regained consciousness moments later to find his fibula sticking out and pieces of the bomber’s bones stuck in his badly wounded left leg. Groberg lost 50 percent of his calf muscle and has had to relearn how to walk after undergoing 33 surgeries.

“I’m weak mentally,” Groberg said of dealing with being physically limited. “I’m waiting for the iRobot type of leg that goes in your nerves and just plugs in and you can just take it off. … 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.”

Growing into the sport

Running was not always one of Groberg’s passions. In fact, he could not stand the sport when he first started. But participating in track helped Groberg, who was born in France and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2001, make friends in an unfamiliar environment when he transitioned from French international school in Bethesda, Md. to a nearby public school in eighth grade.

In sophomore year of high school, Groberg, who often goes by “Flo,” joined the indoor track team after his mother convinced him that at 5 feet 1 and 100 pounds, he was too short and too small for basketball or wrestling. Groberg displayed raw talent at his new sport, but lacked discipline or motivation to put in the work.

“We had fun,” Walter Johnson teammate and good friend Sean Graves recalled. “We ran a lot and we were competitive, but we made it an experience and just tried to have as much fun while we were running.”

After being left off a varsity meet lineup in outdoor track, Groberg felt challenged by his coaches. He argued his way on to the team and lowered his mile time by nearly 30 seconds, finishing the race under 4 minutes 40 seconds. The competition fueled Groberg and he soon developed into a star for the Wildcats.

Groberg graduated from Walter Johnson in 2001 and would run for North Carolina-Wilmington for a semester before transferring to Maryland, where he would join the team three months later as a walk-on.

A versatile runner who could contribute from 800 meters on the track to 8K cross country races, Groberg thrived the most in the relays. Two of his distance medley relay teams, in which he ran the opening 1,200-meter leg, still have times that are among the 10 fastest in Maryland history.

“When you think about running for your teammates, he epitomized that,” Maryland Coach Andrew Valmon said. “I think that he cherished and embodies that process of team.”

A passion continued

Groberg was fuming as he looked over the results of his men’s two-mile fitness test. Junior varsity high school girls were running minutes faster and Groberg printed out the results from a recent meet to prove it.

“This is not even a fast race,” he recalled lecturing his team one day while stationed in Fort Carson, Colo. in 2010. “And you guys are like war-fighting machines … you can’t run faster than a 13-year-old girl?”

Groberg threatened the men with extra physical training sessions if they failed to run two miles in under 15 minutes. And after spending time working on their form, running hills and doing sprint workouts, all but one soldier lowered their personal bests by several minutes.

Years later, Groberg, who now works as a Department of Defense civilian employee, maintains the same passion he had for the sport as when he was running every day. He still reads running news daily and speaks excitedly about his days on the track. Former coaches say they can envision Groberg becoming a coach himself one day, inspiring kids to embrace the sport he once hated, but that ended up changing his life.

“I loved competition,” Groberg said. “But most important was the fact that I got to run with my teammates. Because that’s the stories you remember and you share.

“I still love the sport. … I’ll follow this until I can’t follow it anymore.”

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.