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Maryland Medal of Honor recipient recalls Afghanistan attack

When Florent Groberg spotted the suicide bomber coming toward the senior leaders he was protecting in Afghanistan, he says, he didn't think. He just reacted.

"Once you realize what the threat is, it's a simple thing," the former Army captain said Wednesday. "Get him away because our job is to protect."

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He shoved the man to the ground. The bomb vest around his waist exploded. Groberg blacked out.

The attack in August 2012 unfolded in eight seconds. Four men were killed. But Sgt. 1st Class Brian Brink, one of the soldiers with Groberg that day, credited his charge with saving many others.

For his actions, Groberg is to be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama during a ceremony Thursday at the White House.

The native of France came to Maryland as a child, graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda and ran track at the University of Maryland.

He is the 10th survivor of the Afghanistan war to receive the nation's highest military honor, and the first from Maryland.

With four lives lost, Groberg wears the title of hero uneasily.

"I'm so blessed and honored for the medal, but it doesn't belong to me," he told reporters at a news conference on the eve of the ceremony. "It belongs to them."

Groberg graduated from the University of Maryland in 2006 and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army two years later.

On his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, Groberg was sent to Kunar province, where his unit was involved in heavy fighting as the United States sought to bring stability to the area.

Groberg returned three years later as the leader of a protection detail shuttling senior officers to meetings.

The area had a reputation for action, Groberg said, and the job of protecting senior leaders came with the added expectations.

Brink, who helped assemble the team, told candidates: "You have to be willing to give up for your life for that principle."

The team and had been in fights before, their patrols peppered with gunfire, but nothing to compare with what unfolded on Aug. 8, 2012, in the provincial capital of Asadabad, Kunar.

Groberg, Brink and two other soldiers who were there gathered in a hotel room Wednesday overlooking the Pentagon — where Groberg now works as a civilian — and Arlington National Cemetery to recount the details.

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Looking back, they said, they had a sense that something was off.

Their training had led them to expect that the day of an attack would be revealed by obvious signs — normally busy streets devoid of people, perhaps.

There was nothing like that, Brink said, but the men had formed a tight bond and shared the sense that something was amiss.

"What one of us felt, the other felt," Brink said.

They flew by helicopter into the area, but had to walk the final leg from a forward base to the provincial governor's compound. The party Groberg's team was escorting included an American colonel and command sergeant major and an Afghan general.

They pulled into a diamond formation as they walked down a narrow road around the senior officers. The road passed through a natural choke point, with a bridge over a fast-flowing river up ahead, a deep ditch on one side and a wall on the other.

The first clear sign of trouble was the revving of a car engine behind them, which Brink remembered being amplified in his headset.

It was a signal, he said, for the attack to begin.

A pair of motorbikes approached the soldiers. Then the bomber appeared.

Groberg looked at him but got only a blank stare in return.

"It was the look of evil," Groberg said.

Groberg couldn't see a weapon so he didn't shoot. Instead, he and Sgt. Andrew Mahoney burst forward and tackled the man.

When they hit the ground the bomber detonated his explosives.

Another attacker also blew himself up — a detail Groberg said he didn't learn until two weeks later — but that blast was premature, and was mostly absorbed by a building.

When Groberg regained consciousness, he began shouting for Spc. Daniel Balderrama, the team medic.

"Doc! Doc, save my leg," Balderrama recalled the captain yelling out.

Balderrama was himself badly wounded and unable to walk, but groped the few feet toward Groberg and tied a tourniquet around his leg.

"I remember seeing his boots covered in blood, his leg covered in blood," Balderrama said Wednesday.

Groberg's left leg was shredded. He returned to the United States to begin the long process of recovery. He was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, where he underwent more than thirty procedures on his leg.

The first four months in the hospital were especially difficult.

"I was not an easy person to deal with," Groberg said. "I didn't sleep much and I was pretty angry."

Groberg was personal security detachment commander for Task Force Mountain Warrior, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. He earned a Bronze Star with a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, a Purple Heart, a Meritorious Service Medal, an Army Commendation Medal, an Army Achievement Medal with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster and other decorations.

He received a visit from Obama at Walter Reed, and credited his doctors with fixing him physically and emotionally. He was medically retired from the Army in July.

On Wednesday, he walked without a trace of a limp.

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