A homegrown hero: WJ alum Florent A. Groberg receives Medal of Honor

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Jeffrey Cirillo, Co-Online News Editor

In his high school years at WJ, Florent A. “Flo” Groberg exemplified everything it means to be a Wildcat. Over a decade later, the U.S. Army Captain and WJ alumnus exemplifies everything it means to be a hero.

On November 12, Groberg was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama for his “courageous actions” while on tour of duty in Afghanistan. He is the tenth living Afghanistan veteran to receive the medal, and the second-ever recipient from Montgomery County. Groberg, a 32-year old, graduated from WJ in June 2001.

In the regal, gold-adorned East Room of the White House, the packed room fell silent as the president began to recount the feats of valor for which Groberg would receive the military’s highest honor.

On an August morning in 2012, Groberg was commanding a security detachment charged with escorting high-level army personnel through the Kumar region of Afghanistan. The mission started normally, until a man walking near the formation caught Groberg’s attention.

Suddenly, the unknown man swung around and headed for the formation’s left flank. Groberg made a harrowing realization: the man had a bomb strapped to his chest.

“When he cut towards us, all I could think was ‘I gotta get him away,'” Groberg said.

What Groberg did next was, as President Obama put it, “extraordinary.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Groberg charged at the suicide bomber and shoved him away from the patrol. With the help of fellow soldier Sgt. Andrew Mahoney, Groberg dragged the assailant away and threw him to the ground moments before the bomb detonated.

“In that situation, you don’t have time to think about yourself,” Groberg said. “You have a job and your job is simple: to eliminate the threat.”

“All those years of training on the track, in the classroom, out on the field, all of it came together in those few seconds,” President Obama said of Groberg’s actions. “He had the instincts and the courage to do what was needed.”

Groberg’s bravery and quick reflexes are credited with saving many lives. Four of Groberg’s fellow servicemen died in the attack: Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin, Maj. Thomas Kennedy, Maj. Walter Gray and Mr. Ragaei Abdelfattah.

Groberg sustained serious muscle and nerve damage and a mild traumatic brain injury from the blast. He was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to begin three years of medical treatment. Grueling as his recovery was, Groberg did not have to endure it alone: by his side were two old friends, WJ track coaches Tom Rogers and Tom Martin.

Rogers and Martin coached Groberg when he was a member of WJ’s indoor track team, and they kept in touch through his enrollment at the University of Maryland and deployments to Afghanistan. After Groberg was admitted into Walter Reed, they wasted no time in paying him a visit. Reflecting on his high school years, Groberg remembered Rogers and Martin as two of his most important mentors. Fifteen years later, Groberg still insists on referring to his former coach as “Coach Rogers.”

“I remember Coach Rogers was so proud of me when he found out I was joining the army,” Groberg said. “He always used to say ‘You’re gonna be a ranger!'”

Rogers reminisced fondly about his first impression of Groberg, known to Rogers simply as “Flo,” when he was a sophomore in high school.

“As a tenth grader Flo was skinny and a little squirrely,” Rogers recalled with a grin, “but driven. He was very focused, pretty intense and very confident in himself and his abilities.”

But Groberg’s most important quality, as Rogers remembered it, is that he was at his strongest when fighting for his team, not for himself.

“Flo was always at his best on a relay,” Rogers said. “He was always a tough runner, but on a relay team there was that little something extra there that made him a little bit tougher.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that Groberg flourished in a combat setting. Through his deployments in Afghanistan, he learned there was nothing more crucial than a team that worked with, and for, each other.

“It’s the same thing as being on a sports team,” Groberg said. “To accomplish the mission, you need to be a team player. Without teamwork we can’t be successful. Without teamwork we don’t all come home.”

Approximately three years after the incident, Groberg learned that he had been selected to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions. He said receiving the award is an “overwhelming” honor, but it ultimately feels bittersweet due to the four men he lost.

“[The medal] is the greatest honor I can receive. [But] I can’t say I’m happy about it. The guys I lost were the true heroes,” Groberg said, adding: “I wish I could give back the medal and bring home my four boys.”

Groberg said he wants to use the platform this award gives him to honor those four men, their lives and their families.

“Those four individuals represent the best of our generation and the best of our country,” Groberg said. “They made huge differences in their communities [and] in my life. I want people to know that they are heroes. I want people to know who they are.”

Sgt. Maj. Kevin J. Griffin was born in Wyoming and died at age 45. Even with all the men and women he commanded, Griffin always found the time to talk to his soldiers about military life, personal life and everything in between. Maj. Thomas E. Kennedy died at age 35 and was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal. Groberg called him a military “legend.” Air Force Maj. Walter D. Gray died at age 38, and was known in his hometown of Conyers, Georgia as a religious family man. Ragaei Abdelfattah was not a serviceman, but a USAID foreign service officer. The Annapolis resident was posthumously praised by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for demonstrating “the highest standards of service.”

Standing in that gold-adorned White House reception room, before an audience of friends and family, past Medal of Honor recipients, servicemen and media, Groberg nevertheless could not have looked more humble. And amidst it all sat Rogers and Martin, who watched proudly as President Obama hung the Medal of Honor around the neck of their former track star.

“It was an interesting juxtaposition of emotions,” Rogers said. “It was an unbelievably powerful event, and we were very happy and proud for Flo, but you put that against the four men whose lives were lost. For him, that’s still the hardest part.”

Sharing the room with several Medal of Honor recipients, Groberg included, Rogers was moved by the incredible integrity that they all share.

“These are men that are put in incomprehensible positions, and they do these extraordinary things,” Rogers said. “It’s hard to get your head around sometimes.”

Once he finally settles back down, Groberg plans to come out of medical retirement and begin policy work for the Department of Defense. He said he hopes to visit WJ when he gets the chance. While his years of combat may be behind him, at heart Groberg is every bit the military man he ever was — and every bit the Wildcat.

Meg Tamara also contributed to this article.

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