On August 8, 2012, Army Captain Florent Groberg found himself at a crossroads between life and death.
Groberg was commanding a personal security detachment that was escorting more than two dozen coalition forces from Forward Operating Base Fiaz in Asadabad to another location in Kunar province for a security meeting with Governor Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi.
During the journey, the patrol came upon a bridge, at which point they spotted two motorcycles approaching them from the other side. At approximately the same time, Groberg noticed a nearby man behaving strangely.
Suddenly, the motorcyclists abandoned their vehicles, and the man, who was walking backwards to the left of the unit, turned around. At this point, Groberg suspected that the man posed a threat. After shouting at the man, Groberg approached him, and hit him across the chest with his rifle. Following the initial hit, Groberg realized the man was wearing something underneath his clothes. He then grabbed the man by his chest, and felt a suicide vest underneath.
Without missing a beat, Groberg began pushing the suicide bomber back and away from the patrol. Sgt. Andrew Mahoney came to help, and “finished him down.” The suicide bomber fell to the ground, and his vest detonated, severely injuring Groberg, and killing four personnel. Another nearby bomber wearing a suicide vest also detonated.
Groberg woke up to see his leg “melting,” bone visible through flesh, and blood everywhere. He spent the next several years recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, after which he was medically discharged from the Army.
On November 12, 2015, Groberg received the Medal of Honor, presented by then-President Barack Obama.
On Wednesday, I had the extraordinary opportunity to speak with Capt. Groberg about his experience, including what happened on August 8, 2012, coping with survivors guilt, the love of brotherhood, and much more.
DW: You’ve spoken about the death of your uncle as a moment that defined your path. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
GROBERG: Yeah. The thing about my uncle – it was just that he was my favorite person growing up, in the world. Like, I loved that guy so much. He was Muslim, and his whole life he wanted to serve his religion and family. I wasn’t raised Muslim. I had my choice, and I went with my father’s religion. I was raised Christian, but I admired and loved my uncle so much for everything that he was as a person. So, when a GIA came to Algeria in the late 1980s, early 1990s, to go bring this Islamic radical mindset, he decided that was against everything that he believed in. So he joined the Army, and became Special Forces. I believe he had the opportunity to be trained here in United States, one of those exchange programs, and he went and fought them.
In February of 1996, his unit was ambushed during a ceasefire. He was shot, beheaded, dismembered, put into a box, and sent back to my family – and that whole story completely changed who I was because that was my first stint with terrorists. It’s very personal.
He made me realize that the world I lived in and was sheltered in – that was shattered. I got to understand that there’s a lot of evil out there, and I’ve personally felt it. It kind of rewired me and gave me, at a young age, a different perspective. It also challenged my mindset. “Okay, I’ve got to grow up here a little bit, and do I want to be a part of the solution or not?” I didn’t think that way exactly. I was very angry as a kid – but it really shaped me. Fast forward to 9/11. Here I am, a newly naturalized citizen of this country, and the same type of evil attacks my adopted country, killing almost 3,000 people.
Between those two specific events, I knew exactly what I needed to do with my life, and that was to be a part of the solution, and to go out there and eradicate that type of evil around the world, and that was by serving my nation.
I always felt in everything I do – whether I’m part of an organization, part of a team, part of a relationship – you always want to play your part. You always want to make sure that you earn your right to sit at the table. So when I became an American citizen, I remember thinking, “Wow man, I’m incredibly grateful and proud, but I have to earn it,” and what better way to earn the right to call yourself American than to serve your country when your country is at war.
DW: Do you have full recollection of your emotions during the incident? What was running through your head, not just logistically, but emotionally, while you were rushing the suicide bomber?
GROBERG: When I was rushing him, at first I was trying to figure out, “Okay, is this guy a threat?” He came out of nowhere. I couldn’t see a weapon. “Is he lost, is he stupid, or is he actually a bad guy?” Because I couldn’t see a weapon, I couldn’t engage with my weapon.
So, my thought process is, “Man, I’ve got to close on this guy as quickly as possible” because I’m not going to allow this guy to get closer to the diamond, to get closer to individuals who we were protecting. As I got closer, I started noticing the fact that he was never looking at me, which was really creepy because I was staring at him and yelling at him.
When I hit him with my rifle, again, he never looked at me, so that was a very eerie feeling. All I could think was, “Well, this guy is definitely a bad guy, and I need to get him away from everyone as quickly as possible. Get him as far away as possible.” So, I grabbed him by the chest – and that’s when I grabbed him by the suicide vest – and all I could think was, “Well, here we go.” I didn’t think about dying. I just thought about this guy having a bomb and me needing to protect my guys.
All I could think about was, “I’ve got to throw him as far away as possible.” And I did, he didn’t go too far, to be honest. He landed at my feet. But that’s all I kept thinking about. Then it went black. It’s not like I remember every single piece because when he detonated at my feet, everything went black, and I woke up 20 to 30 feet away with my foot facing me, my fibula completely out, blood everywhere, leg melting, but in shock. So, that was a cool thing that I still remember everything from that moment on. I was definitely in shock. I couldn’t feel any pain, which I’m so grateful for. I’m the type of guy, if I get a paper cut, I’m complaining about it. So here, when your bone is out, and you’re looking at it. It ain’t cool.
It was just one of those moments where you trust without – it’s subconscious, right? The military does a heck of a job training us to react to these types of situations. I mean, it’s difficult to train for a suicide bomber, but we trained for every possible situation you can think.
And it’s a mindset that we have. That’s why a lot of the training that we do is so repetitive. It’s so tedious and annoying at times. You’re like, “Gosh, why do I have to go through doors again?” It’s because we want to make sure that when the situation occurs, you don’t have to worry about thinking about if it’s the right thing. You just react because you’re trained. Your body knows how to do it, you follow your instincts – and that’s what I did that day.
DW: Why did you do what you did? Beyond training, can you go a little bit deeper into your motivation? You’ve mentioned the love of your teammates before.
GROBERG: Yeah. Love, brotherhood, and sisterhood, man. It’s bigger than blood, in my opinion. The fact that you’re willing to put your life on the line day in, day out, night in, night out for each other, over and over and over again. That’s bigger than blood. It’s a bond that is unbreakable, and a bond that will last multiple lifetimes. It’s true love. It’s just the most powerful feeling you’ll ever get to experience when you’re out there together, side by side, fighting for each other. So, when you have to react to a situation where yes, your life will be put in jeopardy, you don’t even think about it. You react because that is the right thing to do, and that is the only thing to do.
DW: How do you deal with survivor’s guilt?
GROBERG: You know, it was really tough for me early on, especially when I was on all sorts of medication. My demons really took a hold of me, and I really needed some strong external support from my family and my friends. But today, they’re at bay because I get to do the one thing that I believe saves lives, which is talk about it, have a conversation about it, be open about it, allow yourself to be vulnerable, and let people know that, “Hey, you’re not perfect.” It doesn’t matter if you’re an Army Ranger or if you’re Seal Team Six. We’re all human beings, and we’re all going to have some difficult times – and when you see death, and you’re part of killing, and you’re seeing friends get killed, you’re a human being, man. It’s okay. It’s okay to have feelings, and guess what? Have a conversation. For me, it’s been so therapeutic. It’s been unbelievable.
DW: A lot of people, especially in the armed services, feel as though they “are their job.” Was the military something that defined you? And if it did, when your role changed following the incident, what was the process of dealing with that altered identity?
GROBERG: Here’s the thing – the military changed me, but it didn’t define me. I believe that every experience that we go through in our lives is a little piece of defining who we are as individuals. So, me growing up in France and in Spain, moving to Illinois, going to the University of Maryland, friends that I made, friends that I lost, jobs that I had – every experience that you have in your life helps define who you are as a person.
So of course, the military played a massive part. It allowed me to refine my character. It gave me better morals and understanding of the integrity, responsibility, and accountability behind being a successful, independent human being. It grounded me in regard to the teamwork aspect. I experienced it in college being a Division 1 athlete, making team captain, but my gosh, when you lead men and women in combat, you really, truly have to understand the idea of self sacrifice and teamwork. All these things allowed me to grow as an individual.
Now, the military does change your mindset a little bit. It really does take a big piece of you. It’s different than the civilian sector, and when you transition, it is uncomfortable, it is unsettling at times. There are definitely odd and weird moments. It can be very difficult for some folks because the language is different, the expectations are different. It’s a way of life that is very different than what our civilian counterparts experience.
But defining me? No. I don’t believe in that. I believe that everything that I go through every day, every experience that I get an opportunity to go through, is an opportunity for me to continue growing as an individual, which, in the end, defines who I am as a person.
DW: What does the Medal of Honor mean to you, and has the meaning changed since you first got it?
GROBERG: That’s a great question. Probably one of the better questions that I’ve encountered in the four years of having this medal, actually. So, the medal to me represents [my military brothers and sisters], their families, and civilians who have supported our military. The fact that men and women raise their right hand, take an oath, and put their lives on the line for the greater good of our nation, for the greater good of each other, for the love of our flag, for the love of our character and ethos as a nation – it’s the greatest commitment to me of all time.
So, the Medal represents all those individuals. The Medal is not mine. I will be a courier. I’m a recipient of the Medal, but it doesn’t belong to me. I’m a firm believer, from day one, that this Medal belongs to the military. It belongs to our nation. We’ve been selected by whoever selected us, and then, at the end, granted by the President of the United States to be couriers of the message of the Medal, which is honor and sacrifice, which is courage and commitment, integrity, and selfless service.
From the first time I received the Medal – I mean, I was ashamed, right? I felt like I failed on August 8, 2012, and here I am being paraded around as a hero while four of my brothers, Command Sergeant Major Griffin, Major Gray, Major Kennedy, and Ragaei Abdelfattah, are no longer on this earth. And their families have to live with that reality. I felt shame, but I knew it was a platform to do some good, and that’s what the Medal really represents. It’s an opportunity for us to go out there and continue being a positive voice for our military, and for our military community, to support our veterans and their families, to make sure that we are never forgotten, the sacrifices that many have made, the ultimate sacrifice that thousands and millions in our history have made, is never forgotten.
Now, over the course of the last few years, the Medal has been very interesting to me. I returned my original Medal to my unit just like Clint Romesha and Sal Giunta did. I actually represented Clint Romesha when he returned his because he couldn’t make it due to a family emergency. I was there at Fort Carson, with the opportunity to present our medals back to the unit. So, it’s out there at the headquarters.
For the last year, I decided that when I’m at events, I’m not wearing the Medal. Unless I’m with other Medal of Honor recipients and I need to be in uniform, I’m not wearing a Medal of Honor. Instead, I’m going to pass it around to people so they can touch it, feel it, take pictures with it because it belongs to them just as much as it belongs to me.
And it’s given me so much more peace, with the fact that we have this platform to do some good – but it’s not something that I’ll ever take for granted. It’s humbling, but it’s also taxing, to be honest. There are a lot of commitments, a lot of requests. It’s hard to say no because you want to support everything, but that’s the burden of it, and that’s something that I’m deeply honored to be a part of, and I hope that I get to earn it.
DW: What is your purpose and drive in life today?
GROBERG: To be a good husband. To be a good friend. To be a good employee. To be a good person. To serve my community to the best of my abilities. To be a positive voice and a positive person in my environment. To not allow negativity to take over, and to just kind of try to do my part to move the needle in the right direction for my country, my friends, my environment, and for my community. That’s it. Simple. I’m not out there to cure world hunger. That’s not who I am. I’m out there to do my part. Just to be a good person and earn the right to still be on this earth.
I think that if I can continue doing that, at the end, I hope that when I pass away, people remember as me as a good husband, a good father, a good friend, a great employee, grateful for his community, and also someone who honorably served his nation.
DW: What’s something that you would tell young people about military service that they may not hear from someone else?
GROBERG: I would say military service is hard, but it’s also one of the greatest honors one can ever be bestowed on. To me, the fact that someone gave me the opportunity to wear a uniform with so much history, and to go out there and lead and be led by the some of the greatest men and women in our nation, it’s humbling and it’s the biggest honor you can think of – to truly become a man in our military, to learn about overcoming adversity, to learn about leadership, to learn about selfless service, and truly to learn about sacrifice.
That has guided me and given me so many tools and experiences that I can take all through the rest of my life in whatever endeavors I go out there and tackle. It has given me a wealth of knowledge, but also a bigger hunger to continue trying to figure out ways to get better and continue serving.
There are many aspects to serving your nation. It’s not for everyone. I’ve never told anyone you should serve your country. I just hope that people consider it, understand what a great privilege it is, and what an unbelievable opportunity it is, individually and collectively for our nation.
DW: Is there anything that you would like readers to know that we haven’t touched on, or that perhaps no one has ever asked you in an interview before?
GROBERG: I’ll be honest, we live in a very divisive world right now where people are at each other’s throats, and people no longer want to listen to each other, and where negative news sells. You can’t keep blaming the media about the all the negativity that’s out there. It’s because people click on it. Let’s be real. People aren’t interested in the good news stories, right? It’s boring. I guess they want to hear about the negative, bad news out there, and unfortunately, it’s creating a divide in our population. I say, let’s go out there and fix ourselves. It starts with us. This makes sure that we ourselves are a positive influence in our environment.
Are we listening to each other? I ask myself all the time, “Am I willing to listen to someone else before I make a judgment. “Am I willing to be challenged by someone else’s opinion, and will I listen back to their comments to me?” “Do I have tough skin to be able to take it?” And then, do I have even tougher skin to say to them, “I think you’re right. I was wrong.”
I believe that we get through this as a nation if we’re willing to truly listen to each other and respect each other’s opinions, and for all of us to make a commitment that we’re going to go out there and have a positive conversation and stop attacking each other or looking for opportunities to attack each other.
That’s my personal take on a way to start healing ourselves because right now it’s just battle after battle. It’s not who we are. That doesn’t represent our character. But that’s the reality that we’re in now. We can have the opportunity to fix it – and it’s really, truly not that difficult.
I’d like to thank Capt. Florent Groberg for taking the time to speak with me about his life. For more information, you can follow Groberg on Twitter and Instagram, visit his page on the Army’s Medal of Honor website, and check out his book, “8 Seconds of Courage: A Soldier’s Story from Immigrant to the Medal of Honor.”