The book signing started as just two vets swapping stories about their grueling days at Army Ranger school.
But before it was over, Medal of Honor recipient Florent Groberg, a UMUC graduate, and Keith Hauk, the university’s associate vice president of Veterans Initiatives for Stateside Military Operations, dug deeply into the psyche of the wounded veteran and the mission of healing.
The discussion extended far beyond Groberg’s new book, “8 seconds of Courage: A Soldier’s Story from Immigrant to the Medal of Honor.” While the text, itself, focuses on Groberg’s life−from his arrival in the United States as an immigrant from France, through his military career, to the eight-second act of courage and recovery that earned him the nation's highest military honor−talk at the book signing mostly focused on what’s next for the author.
On his second tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2012, Capt. Groberg was leading a security detail, escorting commanders to a meeting with local Afghans. As an ambush unfolded, Groberg realized that an Afghan approaching the group was a suicide bomber and pushed him away, tackling him to the ground as the bomb went off. Four people were killed, but Groberg’s actions saved the lives of the many other soldiers and civilians nearby.
Groberg suffered terrible wounds to one leg that nearly had to be amputated. And while recovering at Walter Reed military hospital, he said that he felt depressed, even suicidal, because of his injuries−and because of his guilt at surviving when others in his platoon had died.
Then Travis Mills entered his room. Mills, an Army staff sergeant, had lost all four limbs in an IED attack in Afghanistan that occurred only four months before Groberg was wounded.
“He came along as a mentor when I really needed one,” Groberg said. “In 15 minutes, he took me from this very dark place and opened the door and showed me the light. He said you have a responsibility to walk through this door.”
Mills convinced Groberg that with his survival he had new responsibilities and opportunities in life that few people understand.
“This is an opportunity to heal and to understand your next purpose in life,” Groberg said Mills told him. “Now you have the responsibility to go out and earn the right to be on this Earth, to honor the brothers who did not come home and do some good.”
While he was recovering from his wounds, Groberg used the time to complete a UMUC Master of Science degree with a specialization in intelligence management. Twice, the university has recruited him to speak to graduating classes to share his message.
All the while, he was looking for what he could do to help veterans, especially wounded veterans suffering in their recovery. He realized that when President Obama presented him with the Medal of Honor in November 2016, he had a new platform to use in pursuit of his goal.
“People are struggling,” he told those attending the book-signing event at the UMUC Academic Center in Largo. “There are 20 veterans who commit suicide every single day.”
It’s not that no one is trying to help them, he said. Many organizations are attacking the problem. But they are not collaborating. They are not sharing success stories.
“They’re all fighting for that dollar because they want to make a difference,” he said. “But too many of our folks are not realizing that the right opportunity is right around the corner. I wanted to be part of the solution.”
The Boeing Company, with 20,000 veterans in its workforce, took Groberg on to work on these veterans’ issues and is backing him with the money to make an impact, he said.
“It was like winning the jackpot, having the winning lottery ticket,” Groberg said.
Those resources have given him the opportunity to work on helping wounded veterans make the transition, not just to a job, but to a career.
“We want to make sure the spouses, the kids, the families, the caregivers also [are] given the opportunity to succeed because it’s a family atmosphere,” Groberg said. “If you help the veterans and you help the families, the chances of success go up a thousand times [more] than just helping one person. That’s powerful. So much of the narrative up to this point is about the veteran as a victim [who] comes back badly injured. People are unwilling or unable to see through that.”
Knowing how difficult it is for veterans to tell their combat stories, one Army veteran in the audience asked Groberg how time and time again he can re-live that traumatic experience in public.
“It took years for me to tell my story,” Groberg admitted. “A big part of the reason I am able to do so is that I realize it is so therapeutic. I get to talk about other people I care about who are no longer here. I get to tell their story. It has forced me to confront my reality and my past. It has forced me to understand what happened and, believe it or not, it has allowed me to have conversations about that day that I didn’t feel were possible.”
He recommended that a reluctant veteran start opening up by finding a battle buddy or fellow veteran to talk with. Just get started, Groberg said. “It’s the most therapeutic thing I’ve done in my life.”