Immigrant Medal of Honor Recipient Flo Groberg Acted to Save Lives
President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Army Captain Florent (Flo) Groberg (Ret.) … [+]
As a boy in France, Florent Groberg played with green plastic soldiers. After immigrating to America, he went to school, learned English and volunteered for military service to protect his adopted country after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A recent National Foundation for American Policy report detailed the military contributions and sacrifices of immigrants, including Groberg.
Growing up, Flo, as he’s called, became close with his Uncle Abdou in Algeria. His uncle passed along values about “good and evil” and told his nephew, “Freedom has to be earned. Sometimes, you have to fight for it.” Flo was raised a Lutheran, his father’s faith, but used to attend a mosque and witnessed his uncle observing the traditions of Islam.
At the age of 12, Flo Groberg, born in Poissy, France, immigrated to the United States with his mother, Klara F. Groberg, who was born in Algeria. She married American-born Larry E. Groberg, who sponsored Florent and his mother as family immigrants. Larry Groberg adopted Flo.
At first, Groberg settled with his parents near Chicago but then the family moved to Bethesda Maryland. “Adjusting was not easy,” writes Groberg in his book Eight Seconds of Courage: A Soldier’s Story From Immigrant to the Medal of Honor. “I realized my English had improved a great deal when I began to watch and understand classic war movies in English, without subtitles. I don’t suppose most people think of the early Rambo films and Platoon being tools for teaching a language, but that’s exactly what those movies did for me.”
It is the type of transition thousands of immigrant children must make every year. When asked during an interview what advice he had for such children, Groberg said, “Immerse yourself. It’s going to be uncomfortable and you’re going to have some doubts.” He did his best to make friends and found playing sports helped a great deal. He knew at first some people made fun of his poor English but the more he was around other people, the faster he picked up the language. He spent 8th grade in ESL (English as a Second Language), in 9th grade he attended regular English classes and by 10th grade he was in Honors English.
Around this time, Flo’s Uncle Abdou volunteered to join the Algerian Army in response to the terrorist group GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) wreaking havoc in Algeria. “Even though I was still a boy, my uncle’s courage was deeply inspirational.”
In February 1996, Groberg arrived home from a class field trip to find his mother was not there. His father sat him down. “Florent, I know that this is going to be hard for you to hear,” his father said. “Your mom is in Algeria. She is there for a funeral. It’s your uncle Abdou. He’s been killed.”
That’s not all he was told. “As a 12-year-old, I learned my uncle wasn’t just killed in battle: he was beheaded, dismembered and his body parts shipped back to my extended family in a box. As my mother would tell me upon returning from Algeria, the only saving grace was that uncle Abdou had been shot through the heart.”
More than five years later – on the morning of September 11, 2001 – the memory of his uncle’s death came back to him. Groberg was a freshman attending the University of North Carolina–Wilmington and saw the images of the World Trade Center burning. He called home and told his mother to turn on the TV. “I heard my mom drop to the floor in anguish when the second plane hit.”
“After my father picked up the phone, I told him that I was going to quit college and enlist in the United States Army as a Ranger,” writes Groberg. “The terrorists had done this to my family in 1996 and now to my adopted country. There was no way that I was going to stand on the sidelines and not be a part of the solution.”
His father advised him not to quit school. In July 2008, Flo Groberg joined the U.S. Army and went through basic training. After officer training, Groberg qualified and volunteered for Ranger School. Only 69 of more than 300 soldiers in his original Ranger School class graduated. “Ranger school is a leadership school, but in my opinion it is also a test of character,” writes Groberg. “It wasn’t any ordinary camping trip, but a life lesson learned through trial by fire. I learned a lot about myself and my peers during those two trying months. . . . After so much hunger, exhaustion and self-doubt, I knew that those 61 days of hell had made me a better soldier, and a better person.”
On December 21, 2009, 6 weeks after graduating from Ranger School, Flo Groberg arrived in Afghanistan. For seven months he led a platoon in the most dangerous place on the planet – Pech River Valley. “Six days a week, we would leave the COP [Combat Outpost] to confront the enemy and hold meetings with village elders,” writes Groberg. “The soldiers under my command had it a lot tougher than I did. While I could retreat to my room . . . Due to the constant threat of enemy attacks, each of the COP’s guard towers had to be manned at all times… As their leader I have enormous respect for the sacrifices these young soldiers are making on a daily basis.”
Not all of Groberg’s duties in Afghanistan involved leading and planning military engagements. He recalled the day he spoke to a class of schoolgirls learning English. Under the Taliban, girls were not allowed to attend school. After he introduced himself a little girl stood up and asked him in English: “Are you here to hurt us?”
Groberg knelt to her level and said, “No, my soldiers and I are here to protect you and to help your moms and dads.”
“Speaking to those little girls was the single best moment of my first deployment to Afghanistan,” writes Groberg. “I will never forget the mixture of curiosity and fear in their eyes, or what the same English-speaking girl asked me after I was given permission to hug her. ‘Please keep us safe from the bad men,’ she said while tugging on my green and brown combat fatigues. ‘I promise that I will,’ I said while looking squarely into her eyes.”
In February 2012, after completing a 7-month tour in 2010, Flo Groberg returned to Afghanistan for a second tour of duty. It would change his life. He was assigned to be part of Task Force Mountain Warrior. His job was “coordinating all air and ground movements” for Colonel James Mingus. His primary activity was “protecting important U.S. and Afghan officials as they traveled to and from meetings.”
During his second tour of duty, Groberg said that he did not feel his life threatened at any time in the first 6 months as leader of the security detail. Things had gone so well that on August 7, 2012, he received an email informing him he would be promoted to captain after his mission on August 8th was completed.
On the morning of August 8, 2012, Groberg’s mission was to lead a team providing security for a meeting in the Afghan city of Asadabad. Among those in the group attending the meeting with senior U.S. and Afghan military leaders was Ragaei Abdelfattah, an immigrant to the United States from Egypt. Abdelfattah was a 43-year-old USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) foreign service officer.
“A married Egyptian immigrant who grew to love our country, Ragaei was willing to risk his life in the mountains of Afghanistan without being able to carry a weapon since he was a civilian . . . He volunteered to spend a year in one of the most desperate – and dangerous – places in the world because he was a bona fide humanitarian,” writes Groberg. “He was willing to die for the United States and the people of Afghanistan, which made him every bit as brave as the American service members he walked alongside.”
After the helicopter landed at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Fiaz, Groberg’s “comfort level with the mission changed.” Instead of a 15-man team of U.S. soldiers protecting the perimeter for the “1,000-meter patrol to the governor’s compound,” he had “just two additional U.S. soldiers and an American contractor to engage the enemy “if our patrol came under attack, as well as five Afghan national Army soldiers.” Groberg points out the absence of the 15-man team was a critical problem because his unit “was designed to protect instead of fight.”
The group of 28 Americans and Afghans formed up in the shape of a diamond, with Groberg at the front and those being protected, including U.S. and Afghan army officers, in the middle. After 300 meters, the group came to a bridge that needed to be crossed. Two men rode up to the bridge and jumped off their motorcycles.
More troubling, a man stumbled out of a building walking backwards – and parallel to the patrol. “At first glance, I couldn’t figure out if this guy was a threat . . . The only thing I knew for sure is that there was absolutely no way he was getting anywhere close to the boss [Colonel Mingus],” writes Groberg. “Just then, the suspect abruptly turned all the way around. Then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, he turned again, and was now walking rapidly toward our formation. Without the usual security perimeter, I had no choice but to leave my post and confront him. For every split-second that I wasted, he would get closer to the center of our diamond.
“‘Hey!’ I shouted as I launched into a sprint, much like during my college track days at Maryland. Each of the 8 seconds it took to reach him felt like a silent eternity. The man was young – 19 or 20 at most – and he looked hypnotized or even possessed. His glassy eyes were transfixed on my boss and his face was devoid of any expression. No further doubts remained: this guy was now an imminent threat.
“‘What the hell are you doing?’ I screamed.
“There was total silence. For just a moment the world was made up only of this devil-like figure and me. Unlike the biblical devil, however, this devil had nothing to say. He never even looked me in the eyes. Even when my face was just inches from his, the young man always looked past me – through me – as though I was not there . . . About one second after reaching the threat, I grabbed my rifle with both hands and slammed it into his chest. Once again: nothing. His face did not change, and perhaps most eerily, he didn’t make a single sound.
“With the situation becoming increasingly dire, I placed my hands on his chest to begin driving the young man back. But my hands landed on a bulky package, which I instantly realized was a vest. All of my training and instincts led me to reach the logical conclusion: a bomb was attached to this young man’s body.
“Upon this realization, time truly stood still as my heart and my mind reached a silent accord. I was going to die.”
The terrorist’s thumb was on a “dead man’s trigger,” meaning the bomb would explode once he released his thumb from the button.
“There was no time left for thinking, as only actions would make a difference now,” writes Groberg. “In my final moments, using every ounce of strength that I had, I grabbed hold of the suicide bomber’s vest, and while chest to chest, started pushing the suspect away from the formation. No matter what, I would not stop until he was away from my fellow soldiers and our Afghan counterparts.
“When I realized that the suicide bomber still had not detonated his vest as I continued pushing, I decided to grab him, turn him around, and try to throw him as far as I could. . . . After I made my final push and let go, Sergeant Mahoney, who had boldly left the formation and run in my direction, reached the suicide bomber and pushed him downward. In slow-motion I saw the terrorist land at my feet. This time, death had almost certainly arrived.
“Everything went black as a suicide bomber’s vest detonated, causing a massive cloud of fire and dust. But as the thundering explosion shook the entire city, I heard and felt nothing. My body flew into the air.”
When Groberg woke up, he found himself on the bridge “probably 15 or 20 meters away from where the bomb had exploded.” He did not know where he was but his ears were ringing. He saw a large bone (the fibula) sticking out of his left leg and half his calf was gone. Despite this, he had the presence of mind to pull out his 9-millimeter pistol, cocked it and checked there was a round in the chamber. Blood gushed out of his shattered leg as he dragged himself off the bridge and toward the sounds of American soldiers.
Over the next three years, Flo Groberg endured at least 33 surgeries and hundreds of hours of physical therapy to regain the use of his leg. Although given the choice of amputation, Groberg chose to keep his leg. At times, the pain was unbearable.
On November 12, 2015, in a White House ceremony, President Barack Obama awarded Florent Goldberg the nation’s highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. During the ceremony, the president explained how Groberg’s actions saved the lives of 10 or more members of the U.S. Armed Forces, including senior leaders, as well the lives of Afghan allies. “By pushing the bomber away from the formation, the explosion occurred farther from our forces, and on the ground instead of in the open air,” said President Obama. “And while Flo didn’t know it at the time, that explosion also caused a second, unseen bomb to detonate before it was in place. Had both bombs gone off as planned, who knows how many could have been killed.”
The president recognized the “four heroes Flo want us to remember.” President Obama then described the four men who died that day: Command Sergeant Major Kevin Griffin, Major Tom Kennedy, Major David Gray and USAID foreign service officer Ragaei Abdelfattah. “This is your day, not mine, I thought while clapping for the Griffin, Gray and Kennedy families during a burst of emotion that instantly swamped the East Room,” writes Groberg. “I was also thinking about the Abdelfattah family, halfway across the world in Egypt.”
“Captain Florent A. Groberg distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” the citation for the Medal of Honor reads in part. “Captain Groberg’s immediate actions to push the first suicide bomber away from the formation significantly minimized the impact of the coordinated suicide bombers’ attack on the formation, saving the lives of his comrades and several senior leaders. Captain Groberg’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty at the risk of life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect credit upon himself, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division and the United States Army.”
What motivates immigrants to join the U.S. military? “I can’t speak for every immigrant, but for me it was to earn the right to call myself an American,” said Groberg in an interview. “This country gave me the opportunity to come here and call myself an American. At the time, we were at war and I wanted to give back, to earn that I am a citizen. When my country is fighting an enemy, as a citizen it’s my duty to go out there and fight for this country. We’re as patriotic as anybody else.”
Flo Groberg was born in France and came to the United States as a boy. “Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, I was no longer a guy from France,” according to Groberg. “From that day forward, I was an American.”