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Medal of Honor recipient: On his worst day, 'he managed to summon the best'

US Army Capt. Florent Groberg threw himself between a suicide bomber and a high-ranking US delegation in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. 

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President Obama applauds Medal of Honor recipient retired US Army Captain Florent 'Flo' Groberg (l.) in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Thursday. Groberg received the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions while serving as a personal security detachment commander during combat operations in Kunar Province, Afghanistan on Aug. 8, 2012.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

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US Army Capt. Florent “Flo” Groberg was a track star in college, with success that his teammates attributed to one key trait: He was capable of suffering “a little bit more” than the average athlete in pursuit of his goals.

“What made him a good runner also made him a good soldier,” President Obama said as he related this story in a White House ceremony Thursday honoring Captain Groberg with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest commendation for valor.

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It is an award that “speaks not only of gallantry on the battlefield,” the president said, “but resilience here at home.”

Groberg, who earned his US citizenship after his parents immigrated to the US from France when he was a child, choked back tears as he became the 10th living service member to earn the award in Iraq or Afghanistan. Seven other US troops have received the award posthumously.

The actions that earned him the medal took place three years ago in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, widely regarded as among the most violent in the country, with its craggy mountain passes and the restive Pech River Valley, where fiercely independent residents haven’t taken kindly to US military presence.

It was into this environment that Groberg was deployed during his first tour as an infantry officer in 2009. He returned to the same region again in 2012, serving as a personal security detachment commander, tasked with protecting top US and Afghan military officers.

He was hand-picked to run the security detail, and was allowed in turn to handpick his own team of six soldiers to serve with him.

It was a morning in August 2012, when Groberg’s mission included moving from a forward operating base to the provincial governor's compound in Kunar for a weekly meeting.

He had scoped out the street, walking it 15 minutes earlier, checking for insurgents before his party, which included two colonels, two command sergeants major, and other officers from the Fort Carson, Colo.-based 4th Infantry Division.

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The meeting, as it turns out, was well-known to insurgent forces, who had planned to strike as Groberg’s patrol reached a choke point on the road to the governor’s compound, a small bridge spanning a canal feeding the Kunar River.

That’s when two motorcycles approached from opposite directions. The motorcyclists began to cross the bridge, but then ditched their bikes and began retreating in the opposite direction.

“The [Afghan soldiers] did a heck of a good job pointing their weapons and screaming at them,” Groberg told the Army Times. “The guys dismounted their motorcycles and started running.”

They may have been a distraction for the primary attack: an insurgent whom Groberg noticed was walking backwards toward some of the highest-ranking military troops in the region.

That caught his attention, but when that same person made an abrupt turn toward Col. James Mingus, the brigade commander, and other US officers he was charged with giving his life to protect, Groberg rushed into action.

He charged the suspect, shoving him away from the patrol. That’s when he felt the suicide vest. He and another US military comrade grabbed the suspect again and tried to drive him even further from the patrol, shoving him down to the ground on his chest.

That’s when the suicide vest detonated, an explosion that caused a second suicide bomber’s vest to detonate as well.

“Had both bombs gone off as planned, who knows how many could have been killed,” Mr. Obama said Tuesday. 

“The hardest part of the war that we’re fighting is recognizing your foes,” Groberg later told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “And then one of them will make a right turn and just blow himself up.”

Groberg was knocked unconscious by the blast, and woke up 30 feet from where he stood. His rifle was “chewed up” and his leg was in tatters, requiring a tourniquet applied by Spc. Daniel Balderrama, who himself had been injured in the blast.

Unable to walk, Specialist Balderrama dragged himself toward Groberg to reach and treat him.

Four US officials, including Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin, as well as Maj. Thomas Kennedy, Maj. Walter Gray, and State Department employee Ragaei Abdelfattah, were killed in the attack. 

Groberg called that day the worst of his life, and has spoken about how difficult it is to be nominated for a valor award, having lost his comrades in arms. He is still recovering from his injuries. 

This fact is the “stark reality behind these Medal of Honor ceremonies,” Obama said. “For all the valor we celebrate, these actions were demanded amid some of the most dreadful moments of war.”

And that is precisely the reason the nation bestows this honor on service members like Groberg, he added: “Because on his very worst day, he managed to summon his best. That’s the nature of courage.”