This article appears as the cover story in the Spring 2016 edition of Achiever magazine.
As Medal of Honor recipient Florent Groberg recovered from the 32 surgeries it took to save his leg after he was wounded fending off a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, he came to two conclusions.
First, he had to opt for a positive attitude about his life. To succumb to negativity in the hospital because of his pain and loss would only prolong his recovery.
“You realize, ‘Okay, this is the situation,'” Groberg said. “‘How do I get out of this with a positive outlook, and how do I continue to make a positive difference?’”
Second, he decided that his recovery time provided an opportunity for him to continue his education and that University of Maryland University College offered an ideal path for him to complete a master’s degree.
UMUC is “one of the leading universities for us in the military,” he said. Several people that he knew who had taken UMUC courses told him the professors were supportive of unusual circumstances like his.
“I found that couldn’t have been more true,” he said.
As he sat down with an Achiever reporter in December 2015, more than three years had passed since the explosion in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama had awarded him the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony on November 12. After touring the United States for an Army outreach program, he was about to launch a new career with the U.S. Department of Defense. And he was nearing the end of his UMUC master’s degree program in intelligence management.
As he relaxed in his Washington, D.C., apartment with his cat, Ranger, Groberg talked about the series of life-changing events that he had experienced and where life seemed to be leading him next.
He would have preferred to return to Afghanistan and serve in the Army. But, since World War II, Medal of Honor recipients have not been allowed to go back into a war zone.
“Life is a series of doors,” he said. “I would have loved to go back and continue my career as an infantry officer. But that’s life. The Army closed a door and the Department of Defense opened one. And another door will open where I can make a difference with the veteran community.”
He paused for a moment to pet Ranger.
“So you cherish every opportunity you’ve had,” he said. “You take all of the good things from it. You understand all of the negative things. You go out there and make a bigger difference every single time.”
Born in France, Groberg was adopted by his American stepfather, a project manager with Motorola. The family lived in France and Spain until Groberg was 11 and spoke French at home.
Eventually, they moved to the United States and settled in Bethesda, Maryland, where Groberg first went to a French school, Lycee Rochambeau, before enrolling at Walter Johnson High School.
Easygoing and athletically gifted, Groberg didn’t have trouble fitting in. His first love was track, which took him through high school and into the University of Maryland, College Park.
“What I love is relays,” he said. “There are four of you. You know if three guys do all their work and they run their butts off and you don’t do your part, it’s really disappointing. There’s a lot more pressure, and I like the pressure. I love sharing that moment with the guys at the end. I have always been a team player, and that’s why I had a successful transition from college to the military. It’s all about team. The Rambos are in Hollywood.”
Groberg entered college with two objectives—to excel in track and to pursue a career in law enforcement, perhaps with the FBI. With that in mind, he majored in criminology and worked for the campus police auxiliary.
But one event changed his life—as it did for so many others. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened as he was driving back to his dorm after a get-together with his team. He arrived just in time to see the second plane crash into the World Trade Center.
“It’s one of those moments,” Groberg said. “You’re confused, you’re angry, and then you realize the world has changed. And did it ever change after that.”
His father convinced him to stay in college and graduate before entering the Army. But there was no doubt where life would take him.
He is qualified as an Army Ranger, the elite special forces. Ranger school, he said, “was a lot tougher than anything I experienced in combat.”
“You learn how to maneuver and operate with very little food and very little sleep,” he said. “It teaches you a lot about yourself and what type of individual you are under extreme stress in the way you think and the way you react to things and the way you make decisions. That’s really important when you become an infantry leader. It really prepares you mentally for this tough time when you are on deployment.”
As a newly commissioned second lieutenant, Groberg’s first tour of duty was in Afghanistan during the 2009–2010 troop surge. Deployed in Kunar Province and the Pesch Valley at Combat Outpost Honaker Miracle in the eastern part of the country, his platoon engaged the enemy more than 130 times.
“To be honest, most of the engagements were tiny things, a couple of guys shooting at you, no big deal,” he said. “I had a couple of close calls, and some tough ones, but it was fun.”
Most important, he said, was learning from veteran noncommissioned officers how to lead men and how to complete a mission without taking unnecessary risks.
“There are many times where I heard, ‘We’re not going to do that, sir,'” he said, recalling the feedback he got from his sergeant. “‘I think that’s a stupid idea. You really might want to rethink this. What is the end stake? What are we going to gain from this? Why put ourselves in this type of danger for nothing?’”
In the end, he said, his platoon was able to inflict a lot of damage on the enemy without losing a single American life.
Returning to Afghanistan in February 2012, his mission was different. Now a captain, Groberg was selected by Brigade Commander Col. James Mingus to serve as personal security detachment commander for Task Force Mountain Warrior, Fourth Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division.
With a team of five soldiers, his job was to protect the movement of officers as they traveled to 45 different outstations in five eastern Afghan provinces. Groberg coordinated with the bases they visited to make sure security would be tight.
He and his men would position themselves in a diamond formation with the colonel, major, and any other visiting officers inside. If they were attacked, their job was to collapse on the top officers while other troops responded to the attack, then escort the officers to safety.
For Groberg, it was a fascinating assignment. He got to attend high-level meetings between high-ranking officers of the American, Afghan, and Pakistani military.
“[It helped me] understand the mindset behind the entire madness of the war,” he said. “It gave me a broader understanding of our mission. It made me appreciate more the reason why we were fighting and what we were doing.”
And he got to travel by helicopter almost every day. For six months, it was a great adventure. Until August 18, 2012.
That day, what Groberg calls his “spidey senses” started to act up.
His mission was to lead a group of American and Afghan soldiers as they escorted their commanders to a meeting with local Afghans. It seemed simple enough—just a short walk on foot and over a narrow bridge, pretty much the same drill as always.
But something didn’t seem right to Groberg.
“I changed everything that day, where I positioned myself and where to position some of my guys because I didn’t feel comfortable with what was happening,” he recalled. “I just felt I had so many high-ranking officials with me. That was unusual. That was the spidey sense. I just didn’t like it.”
At first, they passed pedestrians, a few cars and bicycles, even some children. As they approached the bridge, a pair of motorcycles sped toward them. The Afghan troops shouted at them to stop, and the riders ditched their bikes in the middle of the bridge and ran away.
It turned out to be a diversion.
A man in dark clothing stepped out of a building and began walking backward, parallel to the moving formation.
“It was weird, odd,” Groberg said. “All right, what the hell is this guy doing? He did a 180 and . . . turned to face me. I left my position and went at him. I hit him with my rifle as [Sergeant Andrew] Mahoney followed me right into it.
“When I hit him, I said ‘S—t, he’s got something on.’ I grabbed him and knew it was a suicide vest. All I could think was I had to get him as far away from everyone else—the boss, specifically. You don’t think about the consequences of it. You have a job. As long as the boss gets to go home, you’ve had a successful day at work.”
As he and Mahoney pushed the assailant to the ground face first, the suicide vest detonated. Because the ball bearings were positioned in the front of the vest, their damage was significantly limited, though still deadly.
Some of the shrapnel ripped into Groberg’s legs, and the blast threw him into the middle of the road. Miraculously, he and Mahoney survived, but three other American officers and a USAID foreign service officer were killed.
Tragic though it was, it could have been infinitely worse. A second suicide bomber was still hiding in the building. When the first bomb went off, the bomber likely lost his grip on the trigger to his vest, and it detonated prematurely, killing him but causing no additional injuries.
In awarding Groberg the Medal of Honor, President Barack Obama described the scene this way:
Ball bearings, debris, dust exploded everywhere. Flo was thrown some 15 or 20 feet and was knocked unconscious. And moments later, he woke up in the middle of the road in shock. His eardrum was blown out. His leg was broken and bleeding badly. Still, he realized that if the enemy launched a secondary attack, he’d be a sitting duck. When a comrade found him in the smoke, Flo had his pistol out, dragging his wounded body from the road.
Had both suicide bombers been successful, many more allied lives would have been lost, Obama said.
But before the Medal of Honor was awarded, before Groberg could begin a new life, he had to endure three years of pain, surgery, and rehabilitation. He had lost 60 percent of his left calf and suffered severe nerve damage. He resisted the decision to amputate.
“The first couple of months are the worst,” he said. “You’re bedridden. You have no way to make a difference. All you have is your pain and your thoughts and the frustration.”
It would have been easy to sink into self-pity, negativism, and despair.
“Some of the other wounded warriors come into your room and check up on you. They tell you this is just a stage. You will be all right,” he said.
“When you see guys who are missing multiple limbs come into your room and they are smiling and joking with you, you realize, ‘What am I bitching about? These guys are way worse than me in regards to their injuries, and they’re smiling and living life,’” he said. “I was pushing people away, even though they kept coming back because they understood.
“That’s where I learned a key thing I will take with me for the rest of my life,” he said. “Try to find a positive in every negative situation.”
That was one role that UMUC played in his rehabilitation.Groberg gave himself another mission during the long months of recovery. He opted for a master’s degree program in intelligence management because he realized his entire career had been wrapped up in intelligence, even though he hadn’t known it at the time.
“As an infantry officer, I was conducting intelligence every single day, even though my job was not in intelligence,” he said. “When I went to speak to someone about the on-ground situation in their village, that was intelligence. You understand why things are happening and you can almost predict future outcomes.”
That made managing intelligence a compelling subject.
Studying online was the only practical option, he said, and the understanding that many faculty members have shown him has been essential to his success.
Even the requirements around receiving the Medal of Honor presented challenges, and professors Jonathan “Jock” Binnie and Robert Clark were understanding. When he needed more time, they gave it to him, even though they didn’t cut him any slack on the quality of his work.
“Clark was tough on me sometimes,” he said. “[When] I didn’t have time, [and] I just wrote something, he would write back, ‘You can do better.’ So I really made a point to focus more. I got an A in both classes.”
To get through a statistics course, though, he knew he would need more face-to-face instruction, he said. Because UMUC offers classroom locations, he was able to get that, too.
The classwork and his new position with the Department of Defense are just a means to an end, though, said Groberg. His mission for the rest of his life will be to work with veterans—both the wounded and those simply mustered out—to help them make the most of their lives.
“The Medal gives you a platform and a voice in your community,” he said. “My community is the veterans and their families.”
In particular, he wants to convince young veterans to take advantage of the educational opportunities they are offered.
“These 19-year-old kids who are doing incredible things for our country, they are changing lives at such an early age,” he said. “But once they are done with it, that’s all they know, and they feel they can no longer be a positive member of society. I tell them, ‘Go to school.’ The best time of my life was going to college.”
Already Groberg is back in the hospitals, working with the recently wounded to give them the same encouragement that he received during his darkest hours.
And then there are homeless vets that so desperately need help.
“I read that 32 percent of all homeless males are vets,” he said. “I want to figure out not only how we can help those who are currently on the streets, but also how to prevent new vets from ending up there.”
Keeping a positive attitude, helping vets, making his life count— all are things he says he owes the four men who died in the attack.
“It’s unexplainable, one of those things you can try to piece together every single day of your life, a thousand different ways,” he said. “There will just be no simple explanation. It’s just the way it works.”
He said he was closest to Command Sergeant Major Kevin Griffin because he worked with him daily and Griffin fielded all of his questions and “helped me better myself as an officer and as a human being.”
The night before the attack, he said, he ran into Air Force Major David Gray, who was so physically strong he was known as “the beast.” They talked about how much he loved Colorado, and how he was looking forward to gathering with his family when he got home.
He said he didn’t know Army Major Tom Kennedy that well, but when Groberg attended the Army-Navy football game this year, some 15 of Kennedy’s fellow West Pointers came up and talked about all that Kennedy had done for them.
USAID foreign service officer Ragaei Abdelfatah was born in Egypt. He understood the region in detail, and he cared for the people, Groberg said.
“He wasn’t fighting. He wasn’t carrying a weapon. He was there to help the Afghan people.”
When people ask him about the Medal of Honor, Groberg says it is only a means for him to extend the good that these people who died were doing.
“I understand that I need to live my life better. I have to make sacrifices to make sure I earn the right to be here because I got a second opportunity and they didn’t,” he said. “They’re watching me.”
Groberg walks well, although his toes on his left leg are numb and he can only feel his heel. He no longer can run, and he misses that. He looked around his apartment with belongings scattered around because he was unpacking from an Army outreach trip.
“The Medal represents those who died,” he said. “I’m here. I got ESPN on right now. This crazy cat is here. My beautiful girlfriend who lives with me is coming home. I got to live life. I get to go home for Christmas. Four individuals can’t go home to their families and more importantly, four families are missing a key member. Who are the heroes in this?”
(Photo Credits: Images of Groberg saluting, Groberg with Ranger the cat, and Groberg holding a bracelet bearing the names of his fallen comrades are by Mark Finkenstaedt.)