Obama awards 'hero' who tackled suicide bomber top military honour

Obama awards Florent Groberg the Medal of Honour at the White House.
Obama awards Florent Groberg the Medal of Honour at the White House.REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Barack Obama on Thursday awarded America's highest military honour to a French-born soldier who tackled a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, maiming himself, but saving several comrades.

While providing a security escort during a second tour of Afghanistan in 2012, retired army captain Florent Groberg hurled himself at a suspicious looking young man who detonated a bomb vest packed with ball bearings.

The blast left Groberg with serious injuries to his left leg and killed three of his colleagues and a US Agency for International Development foreign service officer.

But the suicide bomber was pushed far enough away from other US and Afghan officials that many lives were saved.

"Flo says that day was the worst day of his life," Obama said.

"That is the stark reality behind these Medal of Honour ceremonies - that for all the valour we celebrate, and all the courage that inspires us, these actions were demanded amid some of the most dreadful moments of war.

"That's precisely why we honour heroes like Flo - because on his very worst day, he managed to summon his very best," he added.

"We are free because of them."

Groberg had been in charge of security for high-ranking officers including an Afghan general and several US colonels.

His mission the morning of the attack was to escort them on foot from a forward operating base to the provincial governor's compound in Asadabad, for a meeting.

"Something felt weird," Groberg told AFP recently, so he changed up the positioning of the men in his patrol and went to the front of the group.

Shortly after, the soldiers noticed a pair of motorcycles driving towards them. That was a first warning; motorcycles are often used in coordinated attacks.

The riders turned away when they saw they had been spotted. Groberg then saw that a young man - not older than 20 - was in among the American troops.

He should not have been there.

"I saw the guy. He is walking backwards, parallel to us," Groberg said.

"I met him, hit him, grabbed him. And when I grabbed him I realised he had a suicide vest on.

"All I could think was, 'I gotta get this guy as far away as possible from everybody else,'" Groberg said, describing how he pushed the bomber down.

"The last I remember, is him hitting the ground, and me looking at him and something came out of his hand," he added, referring to the vest's detonator.

Shortly after the blast, Groberg regained consciousness. He saw his fibula sticking out of his leg.

"My leg was melting," he said. "Thought I must have stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) and I am probably being ambushed, and they are going to shoot me."

A colleague dragged Groberg from the "kill zone" and he was soon given medical attention.

He survived even though he was closest to the blast because the suicide bomber's vest was packed with ball bearings that hurtled out sideways, away from him.

"That's a question that only God can answer," Groberg said when asked how he thought he pulled through.

The victims were: Command Sergeant Major Kevin Griffin and Major Thomas Kennedy from the Army; Air Force Major Walter Gray; and Ragaei Abdelfattah, the aid officer.

"The explosion caused a second suicide bomber, who remained hidden behind a small structure near the road, to detonate his vest prematurely," the Army said in a statement.

"Groberg's actions disrupted both bombers from detonating as planned, saving the majority of lives he was charged with protecting."

The Medal of Honour is awarded to US troops who distinguish themselves by gallantry "above and beyond" the call of duty.

Born in Poissy outside Paris in 1983 to a French-Algerian mother, Groberg came to the United States more than 20 years ago with his mother and adoptive father, who is American.

Groberg, now medically retired from the Army, hopes to continue working in the Department of Defence as a policy expert.