At a White House ceremony on November 12, President Obama will award the Medal of Honor to retired Army captain Florent Groberg. When the president fastens the medal’s light-blue ribbon behind Groberg’s neck, Obama will be doing more than honoring a single American hero. He will be reaffirming what has become a national commitment to honor a distinctive kind of heroism. Groberg, like other recent recipients of the nation’s highest military honor, risked his life to save the lives of others.
Groberg, who was born in France in 1983 and is a naturalized American citizen, grew up in Bethesda and is a graduate of the University of Maryland. He joined the Army, he has said, because he felt he owed something to his adopted country. On his second tour in Afghanistan in 2012, Groberg was in charge of a detail that provided security for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division.
On August 8 of that year, about a month after his promotion to captain, Groberg was leading a security team for a group of senior U.S. and Afghan officers en route to a meeting with local officials in Asadabad, the capital of Kunar Province. As the party advanced on foot, two motorcyclists rode by, and Afghan soldiers flagged them down—a diversion. Groberg then saw a man in local dress walking backwards toward them. He suspected an attack. Groberg called out to the man, who turned to face the party and began to advance on it.
Groberg and his radio operator, Sgt. Andrew J. Mahoney, charged the man, who was one of a pair of suicide bombers targeting the group. Groberg felt the vest under his clothing and drove the man to the ground. The vest had been rigged with a dead-man’s switch and exploded, causing the premature detonation of the other suicide bomber’s similarly rigged vest as well. Groberg and the sergeant were thrown 15 feet by the blast, which ripped apart Groberg’s leg. Although four people died in the attack, Groberg’s selfless charge to halt the suicide bomber saved the lives of the others in the group.
The Medal of Honor has been awarded much less frequently in recent decades than in previous periods of war and conflict. The Vietnam war produced 259 citations for conduct from 1964 through 1973. Since the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu of Black Hawk Down fame, which produced two posthumous citations, the 15 wartime years of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced only 16 citations—12 of them for Afghanistan. As Groberg’s citation certainly will, they describe harrowing conditions and extraordinary wartime courage.
With perhaps one exception, these citations all conclude with descriptions of how the action of the honoree saved the lives of his comrades in arms: “saving the life of his fellow Marine”; “preventing the enemy from capturing the position and saving the lives of his fellow Soldiers”; “[recovered] a fellow American soldier from the enemy”; “evacuated two dozen Afghan soldiers, many of whom were wounded”; “prevented the enemy from overrunning the Observation Post and capturing fallen American soldiers.” Even the citation that doesn’t explicitly refer to life-saving describes Navy SEAL lieutenant Michael P. Murphy exposing himself to lethal fire for the purpose of calling in aid for his surviving team members. The description is that of a sacrificial act.
This life-saving component is hardly unique to the recent awards. Citations from both world wars as well as from other conflicts include frightful instances in which a soldier dives on a grenade to absorb the blast, saving the lives of those around him. But many of the citations from previous conflicts recount feats of extraordinary battlefield prowess with no mention of life-saving action.
Take the citation for Samuel Woodfill, known as the most highly decorated soldier of World War I: “A few minutes later this officer for the third time demonstrated conspicuous daring by charging another machinegun position, killing 5 men in one machinegun pit with his rifle. He then drew his revolver and started to jump into the pit, when 2 other gunners only a few yards away turned their gun on him. Failing to kill them with his revolver, he grabbed a pick lying nearby and killed both of them.”
For my book The Heroic Heart, I tried to quantify the life-saving element of the Medal of Honor over the years. My research team reviewed all the citations since the creation of the award during the Civil War, classifying them on a 1-5 scale based on the degree of prominence the citation assigned to life-saving action. The Woodfill citation would be classified as 1. Most of the Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan citations would warrant a 4, some a 5.