‘I put my hands on the man who killed four’
Medal of Honor
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 12, 2016
Aug. 8, 2012 Asadabad, Afghanistan
In a matter of seconds, Capt. Florent “Flo” Groberg’s life changed forever.
Twin suicide blasts marked the moment all of his Army training kicked in — and the heartbreaking moment he lost four good men in Afghanistan.
Amid the sudden attack, Groberg thrust himself between an Afghan bomber and the servicemembers and civilians his security detachment was tasked to protect that day in 2012.
“You train your whole life, you love the men you fight with; you combine all this together and it makes the easiest decision you could ever make,” said Groberg, now 33, who was badly wounded in the blast.
Lives were saved, President Barack Obama said in November as he fastened the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, around Groberg’s neck.
Now, the medal hangs heavy, a lifelong reminder of his brush with death and his responsibility to honor the two soldiers, an airman and a U.S. Agency for International Development foreign service officer who lost their lives in Kunar province.
“I put my hands on the man who killed four … sometimes I think maybe I could have gotten there quicker, but you are just going to drown yourself in sadness and anger,” Groberg said.
In August 2012, Groberg was leading a personal security detachment with the 4th Infantry Division’s Task Force Mountain Warrior in a mission through the town of Asadabad.
They were in a protective diamond formation around a group of visiting VIPs — two brigade commanders, three battalion commanders, the brigade’s command sergeant major and an Afghan general — who were moving on foot toward a provincial compound for a security conference.
Groberg had gotten fewer servicemembers than he wanted for the mission and was taking every precaution to keep the group safe.
“In this case, I put myself in the front of the diamond,” he said. To his left was Sgt. Andrew Mahoney, who would later be awarded the Silver Star for his actions during the attack.
At a bridge — a natural choke point along the route – the group encountered Afghans on two motorcycles. It caused no immediate alarm but was likely a diversion.
The situation then took a bizarre and ominous turn.
A man came out of a building along the route and began walking backward. Groberg was tracking him, but thought that the Afghan might have had a mental disability.
Suddenly, the man made a 180-degree turn, faced the group and charged.
“That is definitely a threat and I’m worried … I just don’t want him to get closer,” Groberg said.
The soldiers trained their weapons on the man, ready to shoot. “I yelled at him and hit him with my rifle,” Groberg said.
He immediately saw the Afghan was wearing a suicide vest with a “dead-man’s trigger.” It had been activated and ready to detonate before the bomber approached the security detachment and VIPs.
All the bomber had to do was release his grip.
Groberg and Mahoney forced the Afghan away from the group and to the ground.
“I remember looking down and he is at my feet and he let something in his hand drop and that was obviously the trigger, then everything went black,” Groberg said.
The blast threw him 15 to 20 feet. As the dust cleared, he reached for his pistol for protection.
Groberg’s calf was badly mangled, his fibula sticking out, and he was covered in blood — apparently from the suicide bomber. The Army said he lost about 50 percent of his calf muscle and had significant nerve damage, a blown eardrum and a mild traumatic brain injury.
He spent nearly three years recovering at Walter Reed National Medical Military Center and was medically retired in July 2015.
As the dust cleared around Groberg in Asadabad, the news was grim for those in the mission. The attack had killed Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin, 45, of the 4th Brigade Combat Team; Air Force Maj. Walter David Gray, 38; Army Maj. Thomas Kennedy, 35; and Ragaei Abdelfattah, 43, a USAID foreign service officer.
The toll, as Obama would later remark, could have been higher without the heroism of Groberg and Mahoney.
A second suicide bomber had planned to attack the group. The thwarting of the first attack caused his vest to detonate prematurely and the blast was focused into a nearby building, blunting its effects.
“Had both bombs gone off as planned who knows how many could have been killed,” Obama said.
For Groberg, the question remains why he was spared while the other four men were not during the “eight seconds of hell” that he considers the worst moment of his life.
He channels the moments of doubt and survivor’s guilt into living more meaningfully. It has meant helping other servicemembers and veterans overcome adversity and demons. He has built close relationships with the relatives of the four killed that day — men he offered up his own life to save.
“I talk about how to cope with that, and it is love and friendship with the families,” Groberg said.