Many people wonder how they'd act in the face of extreme danger. Army Capt. Florent Groberg doesn't have to wonder.
In 2012, while working on a security detail in Afghanistan, Groberg jumped on a man who detonated a suicide vest. The attack killed four men in Groberg's patrol and wounded others. Groberg's left calf was blown off. He also suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Groberg was honored at the White House in November, but says he would give up his Medal of Honor to get back the four lives that were lost. Ahead of Memorial Day, Groberg, who was based at Fort Carson before he retired, spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.
On what he remembers of the moment he was wounded:
"When the vest detonated, I, just, everything just went black. That's about it. I didn't feel anything. I just got knocked out. I woke up a couple minutes later on the ground, about 15 feet away, sort of in a haze and my rifle was gone. I took my helmet off, all the straps on my helmet were loose. I just threw it away and I just looked at my, I saw my leg, and my foot was facing me, my fibula was out. Leg was melting, blood everywhere. I didn't feel anything and at that point I realized that I had been hit and this was reality but I was in shock, which was a good thing. I remember thinking in my head, 'okay, I'm in shock.'
Okay, the leg's gone, they're going to have to cut that thing, and now I need to check myself for internal wounds. Good, good, check myself all over, I was good. Make sure that everything was still in place where they were supposed to be and I was probably more than likely part of an ambush where I would be following with SAF now, small arms fire, and I had to get myself out of the kill zone, so I took my pistol out, made sure I had a round in chamber, and starting dragging myself out of the kill zone."
On why he doesn't think he deserves the medal:
"You know, it's more that the medal, I'm receiving an award for actions that resulted in four men not coming home. And that's the tough part. And I don't believe I deserve the medal because I believe I acted like any soldiers, any soldier would act in that situation. I was the closest man to the threat and I had to react to the threat. That's what we're trained to do, that's what we believe in doing. That's the mentality and our mindset that is necessary to go serve your country in hostile environments.
But in this case I received the Medal of Honor for actions on my worst day, on the worst day of my life. And so I didn't want it but I realize the Medal of Honor doesn't belong to me, absolutely not. It's a symbol and this case it's specifically representing the four men, Commander Sergeant Griffin, Major Gray, Major Kennedy, and Ragaei Abdelfattah and their family. So I decided in my own head that I would accept this medal with the idea that I would be a courier and I would earn the right to wear it every single day by my actions on in my life. And I just hope that one day I get the opportunity to go meet my friends in heaven and they have a beer waiting for me and they say you did all right."
Read a transcript of the entire conversation:
Captain Florent Groberg: When the vest detonated, I, just everything just went black. That's about it. I didn't feel anything. I just got knocked out. I woke up a couple minutes later on the ground, about fifteen feet away, sort of in a haze and my rifle was gone. I took my helmet off, all the straps on my helmet were loose. I just threw it away and I just looked at my, I saw my leg and my foot was facing me, my fibula was out. Leg was melting, blood everywhere. I didn't feel anything and at that point I realized that I had been hit and this was reality but I was in shock, which was a good thing.
I remember thinking in my head, okay, I'm in shock. Okay, the leg's gone, they're going to have to cut that thing, and now I need to check myself for internal wounds. Good, good, check myself all over, I was good. Make sure that everything was still in place where they were supposed to be and I was probably more than likely part of an ambush where I would be following with SAF now, Small Arms Fire, and I had to get myself out of the kill-zone so I took my pistol out, made sure I had a round in chamber and starting dragging myself out of the kill-zone.
Ryan Warner: So the shock, is that what allows you to be so calm and self-possessed or is that just who you are?
Groberg: I don't know, it's just, I can't speak for everyone but I know one thing, shock equaled no pain. And no pain equals my brain being able to function as a professional and that's what I was doing. You know I felt the pain later on, about fifteen minutes later, when the shock and adrenaline ran off but until then I didn't feel anything and I knew that I had a specific amount of time, I didn't know how long before the pain would come in and the pain would be pretty substantial and so I needed to act quickly and this is what we're trained to do, you know. Just act like a soldier. That's it.
Warner: What do I hear clinking in the background there?
Groberg: That's the, the clinking, I must apologize, is my metal bracelet that I wear everywhere. Every single day that reminds me of my guys that didn't come home.
Warner: So the suicide bomber had what's called a dead-man's trigger. Can you say more about that?
Groberg: The dead-man's trigger is when the man, the individual with the bomb, the man or woman, they press that button. And once you release the button, the bomb explodes. So in this case he pressed the button and came towards us, fully knowing that he was, as soon as he released it, he would kill all of us, including himself.
Warner: What was the extent of your injuries?
Groberg: The extent of my injuries was, I was lucky, I lost 50% of my calf. I have some nerve damage, can't feel my, much of my leg below my left knee. Can't move my toes, things like that. Had TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury, but that went away after a little while. Just needed time to heal. And I lost quite a bit of my hearing in my left ear but my, I got a heck of a great right ear so I can hear everything. But yeah, very lucky, nothing too serious.
Warner: You've said twice there you were lucky.
Groberg: Absolutely. I don't know what my calling is or for what purpose, I just know that I have to be a better human being every single day. And I have to utilize this second chance at life to make a positive difference in other people's lives as well and specifically now, starting in my veteran community. But the man detonated at my feet, get 25 to 35 pounds of homemade explosives on him and he did not kill me but he killed four of my friends.
Warner: It sounds like you've struggled with the question of why you survived when the others didn't.
Groberg: Survivor's guilt. Absolutely. I struggled with it for a long time and I was in a very dark place early on in my recovery process when I was at Walter Reed as an inpatient. I had what we call demons, and what I specifically call demons, in my head telling me some pretty awful things about me surviving and four great individuals dying on my watch and I was in charge of security patrol. So I struggled with that and when you add in some dilaudid, oxys, ketamine, trazodone, Ambien, Lunesta, all those wonderful narcotics and different medicines for my recovery, it's just a mix for danger. But fortunately I was surrounded by my family and friends, but most importantly some incredible wounded warriors who had gone through traumatic injuries and they allowed me to find myself. Specifically a man, Travis Mills, who is a quadruple amputee who came into my room and in fifteen minutes changed my life for a positive by telling me, "Hey look, you're blessed and you just need to be grateful and stop being a crybaby." And I took that to heart.
Warner: So this gentleman who inspired you, what you're saying is that he had no arms or no legs, is that right?
Groberg: That is correct.
Warner: Do you remember more of what he said to you? I mean stop being a crybaby doesn't sound like great advice when you're struggling with demons.
Groberg: No, it's, he came in, on four prosthetics and he had a smile on his face and he said, "What a great day to be alive. What a great day to be an American!" And then he gave me a life message, "Look, you're here, you're alive. You should be grateful about that and stop blaming yourself for your friends. There's a reason why they're gone, there's a reason why you're here and one of your reasons now is to go out there and do something more and honor them. Honor their names, honor their history. They're the true heroes in this story. They're the ones that made the ultimate sacrifice and now you have to earn that right to still be here." And that really resonated in me and that made me realize that I was complaining about my own injuries when they were so minimal, compared to the 90% of the individuals who were at Walter Reed and that I was being selfish.
Warner: You talked about having traumatic brain injury from the blast. I didn't think of that as something that you could quickly, or fairly quickly, get over. I think of that as something that reverberates through a lifetime.
Groberg: There are different levels I believe. I'm not a socio-[unclear] expert when it comes down to traumatic brain injuries. I just know that mine was pretty mild. Meaning that I couldn't remember certain names or animals or words for about six to eight weeks. But over time my brain stabilized itself and I was able to go back and do certain things that I was doing prior successfully. So I'm in grad school, I'm a 3.8 GPA guy, I just passed business statistics at a grad school level so I can't complain too much about my traumatic brain injury. But I kind of use it to my benefit sometimes when I forget keys or forget to turn the oven off and my girlfriend gets pretty fired up at me about these small things. So I tell her, "Hey, baby, it's traumatic brain injury, I can't help it." So it's sort of the way I use it sometimes.
Warner: At least if you survive yes, a suicide bombing, you get to play that card once in a while it sounds like, Captain.
Groberg: Once in awhile, hopefully I never have to play that card when, if I get pulled over for speeding. But I might have to.
Warner: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and on this Memorial Day we are speaking with Army Captain Florent Groberg, who is a Medal of Honor winner who is based at Fort Carson and when he served in Afghanistan in 2012 he survived a suicide bombing. You grew up just outside of Paris and came to the U.S. when you were young. What made you decide to join the military?
Groberg: So my father adopted me, I never met my biological father and my mom is French-Algerian and we were just blessed enough that she went out on a date once and met a guy from Gary, Indiana named Larry Groberg and he decided to marry her and adopt me so he brought me to the United States, I was about eleven years old. I didn't speak English and I was just a different culture and being so foreign, it was definitely a life-changing experience but I fell in love with the United States, specifically sports. And I was a decent soccer player, a decent runner, I got to go run at the University of Maryland cross-country in track and field so that was a decent little career. I was just so in love with this country. But really the biggest thing for me is that a man took me in and gave me his name and he was American and I grew up with him. And he always made me feel American. So when 9/11 happened, that was definitely a very emotional state for me and including everybody else in our nation and I knew that because I'm an American, it was my duty to go serve my country in a time of war. And war was coming and I wanted to be a part of it and serve my country. Earn the right to call myself an American because I'd been blessed and given an opportunity to be naturalized so that was amazing for me and life-changing moment again. So I had to earn it.
Warner: What relationship do you have with sports today and how is your mobility in general?
Groberg: Mobility is good. I just don't run. I'm officially now retired from the United States Army and retired from running. So I do other things, a little cross-fit, I definitely lift, elliptical, I really don't like elliptical but I do it. And I'm starting to get myself into rowing and kayaking so I'm very active but I had to sort of change my different passions in sports. But I can't play soccer, I can't really play basketball, all those type of team sports I just can't do it because I can't run. But that's okay. I watch it.
Warner: It sounds like service has really been important to you, to be of service after surviving the blast. How are you of service today?
Groberg: So great question. Today I have dedicated my next mission to helping out the veteran community with the transition process. So service members transitioning out of the military into corporate America. I partnered up with LinkedIn. I'm a spokesperson for their veteran's program and our job is to make sure that we are giving our service members every single opportunity to be successful when transitioning to corporate America.
Warner: Do you find that corporate America is still a bit perplexed as to what to do with veterans and how to interpret their service and their resumes?
Groberg: I think it's a two-way side. I know for a fact what I've been witnessing is that a lot of these companies are out there setting up a veteran HR offices so that once they get veteran resumes they can dissect them a little bit more effectively. But it's also a situation on our side, the military side, is a perception that because I was an infantry soldier or infantry officer, as an example, I only bring a certain set of skills to the table which means that when I transition maybe I can only become a police officer, a firefighter or a contractor. Absolutely not, absolutely not. If you're an infantry guy, you have leadership skills, you have team management skills, you're, you know what mission centric is, you know how to work within a diverse set of people. On the same platform to accomplish the same tasks. And that's things that companies such as LinkedIn, companies such as Facebook, Google, tech companies, US Banks, JP Morgan, Chase, Bank of America and all, I mean hundreds of thousands of other companies are looking for.
Warner: What do you find veterans most need when they transition to corporate world?
Groberg: Mentorship. Mentorship is the biggest thing. I needed that. I personally needed that. I'll tell you a story. When I was transitioning, I went into a board room and there was about twelve people there and we were having a pretty intense conversation about financial, the next quarter of financials. I wasn't really involved but they just told me to listen and learn and halfway through that meeting, I finished my bottle of water and then I took my chewing tobacco and I put a what we call a dip in my mouth and I started spitting in that bottle. And obviously that was a big no-go for everybody else in the room. But nobody said anything to me because they figured oh, he's a wounded guy and we don't want to bother him right now. But at the end, my mentor, put me aside and he said, "Flo, you just simply cannot do that. That is not a business etiquette. I know you come from the infantry world and chewing tobacco in your meeting, that was okay. But here, there's certain things you cannot do in corporate America and we're going to help you with that." Just a simple thing. That's just one of the hundreds of examples that I can use in my own transition process. But I needed a mentor, I needed a guy to show me the ropes. And I needed a person that understood where I came from but also taught me how to be comfortable in this new position and showed me ways for me to be successful. And I think that's really important.
Warner: Tell me about getting the Medal of Honor and I think meeting the president at that ceremony.
Groberg: Receiving the Medal of Honor was one of those really interesting emotional moments that a human being can go through. Obviously I didn't want it. If I could give it back right now and get my guys back, I would do that without even thinking. But it's a great honor. The President was an outstanding individual. He's very friendly. He remembered me and my mother and my father and my best friend, Matt Sanders, from his visit in 2012 so it was pretty cool.
Warner: He visited you at Walter Reed.
Groberg: Yes. He visited me at Walter Reed and a couple of other wounded warriors on September 11, 2012.
Warner: And the reason you would prefer not to have the Medal of Honor is just that you would have preferred not to go through what you and those men went through.
Groberg: You know, it's more that the medal, I'm receiving an award for actions on that, resulted in four men not coming home. And that's the tough part. And I don't believe I deserve the medal because I believe I acted like any soldier's, any soldier would act in that situation. I was the closest man to the threat and I had to react to the threat. That's what we're trained to do, that's what we believe in doing. That's the mentality and our mindset that is necessary to go serve your country in hostile environments. But in this case I received the Medal of Honor for actions on my worst day, on the worst day of my life. And so I didn't want it but I realize the Medal of Honor doesn't belong to me, absolutely not. It's a symbol and this case it's specifically representing the four men, Commander Sergeant Griffin, Major Gray, Major Kennedy, and Ragaei Abdelfattah and their family. So I decided in my own head that I would accept this medal with the idea that I would be a courier and I would earn the right to wear it every single day by my actions on in my life. And I just hope that one day I get the opportunity to go meet my friends in heaven and they have a beer waiting for me and they say you did all right.
Warner: Thanks so much.
Groberg: Thank you.