Medal of Honor Recipient Honored at Citizenship Ceremony

  • In this photo taken Oct. 20, 2015, former Army Captain Florent Groberg poses for a portrait at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
    In this photo taken Oct. 20, 2015, former Army Captain Florent Groberg poses for a portrait at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
  • In this Feb. 14, 2013, file photo, Capt. Florent Groberg returns for the Change of Command ceremony for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, at Fort Carson's Special Events Center, in Colo. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP, File)
    In this Feb. 14, 2013, file photo, Capt. Florent Groberg returns for the Change of Command ceremony for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, at Fort Carson's Special Events Center, in Colo. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP, File)
  • President Obama bestows the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor to retired Army captain Florent Groberg during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
    President Obama bestows the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor to retired Army captain Florent Groberg during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The 164 new Americans who took their oath of citizenship Monday at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia, received an unusual send-off: "Hooah!"

The Army cheer came from retired Capt. Florent Groberg, who was honored with the Outstanding American by Choice award at the ceremony.

Groberg, who received the Medal of Honor last year for heroic actions in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, that saved the lives of American troops, was born in Poissy, France, and became an American citizen in 2001 at age 17. He is one of only 11 living Medal of Honor recipients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Groberg, 33, told the group, who hailed from 43 different countries, that he had come to understand what it meant to be an American through his seven years of military service.

"When I lost my friends, when I felt that pain, it reminded me why this is the greatest country in the world. Because of its people, because of our history," he said. "We stand up while others run. We face our struggles head on, and when we get back down, we get back up."

The presence of Groberg and Army Secretary Eric Fanning, another guest of honor at the ceremony, gave more weight to passages in the oath of citizenship that commit new citizens to "bear arms on behalf of the United States" and "perform noncombatant services for the Armed Forces" when required by law to do so.

Fanning hailed the diversity in the room, saying it was crucial to American military strength.

"For me, the existence and frequency of these naturalization ceremonies ranks as an important national achievement," he said. "As Army secretary, when I look at a formation of soldiers, I want to see strength. I want to see the resilience. I see that as I look around this room today. These characteristics are what makes Americans and America great."

Fanning subtly referred to the heated national debate on immigration stoked by President-elect Donald Trump, saying these were "anxious times" for many immigrants and their children.

"But if history provides any preview of our future, we know that the contributions of our newest Americans, their love for this country, and their fearless and relentless pursuit of opportunity will remain the surest foundation of our strength and success," he said. "The dynamism and diversity you bring to this nation will be a catalyst for a stronger and more prosperous America, just as it has always been."

The presence of Groberg and Fanning at the ceremony was particularly significant for two military spouses who became citizens with their uniformed husbands in attendance.

"The Medal of Honor recipient, I loved everything he said. It was really special," said Dolly Morris, born in Colombia, who met her husband, Navy Capt. Mark Morris, when he was a chief of mission in Bogota from 2006 to 2010.

Morris, who retired in 2014 and wore his dress blue uniform to the ceremony, said his military experiences made the citizenship more remarkable.

"I've served with a lot of different officers from other countries, and all of them were -- they just were beyond belief that we would allow people to come here, to become citizens, to vote, to own property," he said. "They would say, 'In my country, we would never let someone else become a citizen. We'd never let them vote.' It was just a universal thing except for here. It's pretty amazing."

Dolly Morris said she had wanted to become an American citizen in order to vote in the presidential election and narrowly missed doing so, but hopes to vote in other elections.

Natalia Vedenskaya also took the oath as her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Eliezer Morales, looked on. The couple met when Morales was stationed in South Korea, where Vedenskaya, who is from Russia, worked. She began the process to become a citizen in 2012, she said.

For Morales, who works at the Defense Intelligence Agency at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., having Groberg and Fanning in attendance has special significance for him as a soldier.

"It's really nice to see how people from other countries like him come here as a young person, and go through all the stuff he went through," he said. "It's really amazing. I'm glad he was here."

Groberg told Military.com he was honored to be a part of the ceremony. And even in a year of political tumult, he said he wasn't worried about the nation's future.

"We are the greatest country in the world. This is a place where we can make anything we want of ourselves; this is the land of opportunity," he said. "So I'm very confident in the leadership that we have had, and will have. And I just, every day, am grateful to call myself an American. I wouldn't have it any other way."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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Army Medal of Honor Awards