Retired Army Capt. Florent "Flo" Groberg was presented the Medal of Honor on Thursday at a White House ceremony by President Barack Obama, who offered a brief life sketch of a courageous man who always managed to go the extra distance when his team depended on him.
A competitive runner while growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, he ran track and cross country at the University of Maryland, where a former coach called him "the consummate teammate."
"As good as he was in individual events, somehow he always found a little extra something when he was running on a relay, with a team," Obama said. "Distance running is really all about guts. And as one teammate said, Flo could 'suffer a little more than everyone else could.'"
All that -- the sense of team, the guts, the willingness to suffer and, of course, the running -- came together in Afghanistan on Aug. 8, 2012, when he charged a suicide bomber, pushing him away from military and civilian leaders he was escorting until the enemy fell, face down, atop the bomb as it went off. "Ball bearings, debris, dust exploded everywhere," Obama said, describing the scene. "Flo was thrown some 15 or 20 feet and was knocked unconscious. And moments later, he woke up in the middle of the road in shock. His eardrum was blown out. His leg was broken and bleeding badly."
The blast claimed four American lives, Obama said, "four heroes Flo wants us to remember today."
Standing near the President in the East Room, Groberg nodded slightly as Obama named the four men who died that day, among them, "one of [Groberg's] mentors, a 24-year Army vet who always found time for Flo and any other soldier who wanted to talk -- Command Sergeant Major Kevin Griffin."
Also killed were Maj. Tom Kennedy, "a West Pointer who loved hockey and became a role model to cadets and troops because he always cared more about other people than himself," Obama said. And there was "a popular Air Force leader known for smiling with his 'whole face' -- someone who always seemed to run into a friend wherever he went, Major David Gray.
"And finally, a USAID foreign service officer who had just volunteered for a second tour in Afghanistan, a man who moved to the United States from Egypt and reveled in everything American, whether it was Disneyland or chain restaurants or roadside pie -- Ragaei Abdelfatah," Obama said, referring to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"These four men believed in America. They dedicated their lives to our country. They died serving it," Obama said moments before placing the Medal of Honor around Groberg's neck as members of his family and his girlfriend, Carsen, sat nearby. Also in the room were family members of Griffin, Kennedy and Gray, and Obama asked them to "please stand and accept our deepest thanks."
In very brief remarks held outside in the rain after the ceremony Groberg called the award "the greatest honor you could ever receive."
"But this medal belongs to the true heroes -- Command Sergeant Griffin, Major Gray, Major Kennedy, Ragaei Abdelfattah -- who made the ultimate sacrifice and didn't come home," he continued, standing beneath an umbrella held out for him. "It also belongs to their families, true heroes who live with that day every day missing one of the members of their families. So I'm honored, overwhelmed, but I hope to become the right carrier for them and better myself as a human being for the rest of my life."
Groberg was on his second Afghanistan tour in 2012. Accompanied by fellow soldiers who were with him that day -- Staff Sgt. Brian Brink, the platoon Sergeant; Sgt. Andrew Mahoney, the communications specialist; and Spc. Daniel Balderrama, the medic, Groberg described the attack on Wednesday during a roundtable with reporters at the Pentagon.
He said he was familiar with the particular dangers posed by Kunar province, having served a previous tour in Afghanistan as part of Task Force Lethal with responsibility for Kunar's Pech River valley.
On Thursday, Obama recalled meeting Groberg in 2012 when he the officer was at Walter Reed Medical Center.
"I was on one of my regular visits to Walter Reed to spend some time with our wounded warriors and Flo was one of them," Obama said. "We talked. It turns out he liked the Chicago Bears -- so I liked him right away."
The president also told of Groberg waking up at the Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany after the attack, vaguely aware he was in Germany but confused by the person speaking with him at his bedside.
"He thought it was the lead singer from the heavy metal band Korn," Obama said. "Flo thought, "What's going on? Am I hallucinating?' But he wasn't. It was all real." "And so today, Flo," Obama continued, "I want to assure you, you are not hallucinating. You are actually in the White House. Those cameras are on. I am not the lead singer from Korn. We are here to award you our nation's highest military honor -- distinction, the Medal of Honor."