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.
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.
The prominence of life-saving in citations has been steadily increasing, from about a 2.3 average in World War II to just over 2.8 for Korea and 3.5 for the Vietnam era. Citations for Iraq and Afghanistan are in the range of 4.0. The increased emphasis on life-saving heroics is more than just a matter of impression.
The U.S. military has not formally changed the requirements for its highest decoration, and if any additional internal guidance is in place, I am unaware of it. More likely, I think, is that the Medal of Honor has kept pace with the society out of which it arises. In our time, the heroic archetype is no Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, hellbent on conquering and ruling the world. Rather, it’s the 9/11 firefighter—someone willing to rush into a burning building to save the lives of stran-gers. In a society badly divided on many questions, the heroism of those firefighters and other first responders who voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way is a matter of near unanimity.
The U.S. military is a distinctive institution in many ways, starting with its responsibility to fight our enemies. But it is still part of American society. That the military has come to confer its highest honor on the same kind of conduct the public values most highly should perhaps come as no surprise.
One must ask, though: Is this a skewed priority? Is it a mistake to close the door to the highest honor on such derring-do as Samuel Woodfill’s? Perhaps the superior status the military itself now assigns to life-saving indicates a new squeamishness about the reality of the enterprise, which entails killing the enemy.
The U.S. military remains very good at its job, an indication there is no big problem here. If we look a little more deeply into the matter, however, a richer picture emerges. Why soldiers fight is a question that has long vexed armies eager to improve their performance on the battlefield. One answer that stands out in the scholarly literature goes by the term “small-unit cohesion”—a fancy way of saying that soldiers fight because they believe the soldiers around them depend on them. They are part of a group; they are not alone. Interestingly, this is an answer firefighters commonly give to explain their willingness to put themselves at risk in burning buildings.
That the Medal of Honor now goes mainly for life-saving is perhaps the ultimate reinforcement of a message the military emphasizes up and down the ranks: You’re not alone. Your comrades have yourback. No one gets left behind. You are not a pawn to be sacrificed in a game of chess; you are part of the society on whose behalf you have chosen to fight. War is dangerous; death is a possibility; but your life is worth heroic efforts to save.
Groberg has talked movingly in a video about his experience on August 8, 2012. He called it “the worst day of my life” because of the four individuals who died in the attack. This life-saving hero humbly regrets his inability to save more lives. Our nation rightly honors him.