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From suicide blast in Afghanistan to helping run Boeing Commercial Airplanes

Florent Groberg, right, a Medal of Honor recipient, is of staff to the head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Here, he meets employees on the 737 assembly line in Rentonon Nov. 8, 2018. (Mike Siegel / Seattle Times)
Florent Groberg, right, a Medal of Honor recipient, is of staff to the head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Here, he meets employees on the 737 assembly line in Rentonon Nov. 8, 2018. (Mike Siegel / Seattle Times)
By Dominic Gates Seattle Times

After the bomb, Flo the Runner needed help, to walk again and just to go on living.

Doctors worked on him through 18 months of surgeries and infections. A fellow soldier who’d suffered even more inspired him to fight and to live.

The woman who would become his wife offered a sanctuary of love. A loyal dog’s companionship gave him comfort.

His adopted country awarded him its highest honor. President Barack Obama embraced him and his family.

Then Boeing hired him and gave him a new mission.

At 35, he’s now chief of staff to the head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, a key piece of the jetmaker’s local leadership team, and one of about 10,000 military vets on the company’s Puget Sound-area payroll.

“I’m the most grateful person,” said Flo Groberg, speaking in his office at Commercial Airplane headquarters in Longacres, Washington. “I’ve been lucky my entire life.”

‘I couldn’t shoot him’

On Aug. 8, 2012, U.S. Army Ranger Florent Groberg, a newly promoted captain on his second tour in Afghanistan, led the security detail protecting top U.S. military commanders who flew via helicopter to the city of Asadabad to meet with provincial leaders.

As described in his book, “Eight Seconds of Courage,” his men formed a protective diamond-shaped formation around the top brass – with Groberg at the tip – for the short, tense walk from the helicopter to the local Afghan governor’s compound.

Suddenly, all attention was fixed on two motorcycles speeding toward the group from across a bridge ahead. When an Afghan soldier with the security detail ordered them loudly in Pashto to stop, the riders dismounted, abandoned the bikes and ran away.

It was a decoy. At that moment, a man wearing flowing black traditional garb stumbled out of a building behind Groberg and walked backward toward the patrol.

“I just saw him out of the corner of my eye,” said Groberg. It was confusing. Was this a threat?

“I couldn’t shoot him,” Groberg said. “I didn’t see a weapon.”

Groberg sprinted toward the man, screaming at him to get back. It took seconds to reach him. Their eyes inches apart, Groberg shoved the man’s chest and felt the hard bulk of a suicide vest.

The bomber had attached a fake right arm to hide his real arm underneath his clothes, where his thumb pressed on a “deadman’s trigger.” Even if he were shot, the bomb was primed to go off as soon as that pressure was released.

Realizing all this in an instant, Groberg lifted the bomber, turned him around and threw him as far as he could. As soon as he hit the ground, the bomb detonated. Groberg’s world went black.

Old world, new world

On the wall in Groberg’s Boeing office, a jersey belonging to Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon reflects his childhood influences.

Groberg, born in Paris to an Algerian Muslim mother, knows nothing about his biological father. When he was 3 years old, his mom met and married an American from Gary, Indiana, who adopted him and gave him his surname.

He grew up near Chicago, with his Muslim mother, Lutheran father and a new American world to form him. He went to high school in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was a star runner.

When he was 13, he was distraught when a favorite uncle back in Algeria, a peaceful Muslim preacher named Abdou, was killed by the Groupe Islamique Arme, or GIA, a radical Islamist group waging a violent campaign of civilian massacres.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks crashed into his world when he was 18 and attending the University of Maryland, where he was also a track star.

“9/11 was the catalyst,” Groberg said. The radical Islamist groups “who had killed my uncle and terrorized my family for many years were now attacking my adopted country.”

Having completed college, he entered officer-candidate school and successively completed the leadership course, Infantry school, Airborne school and finally Ranger school, where he was one of 69 graduates out of 339 entrants.

As a dual U.S. and French citizen, to get the “Secret” clearance needed to be a U.S. military officer he had to renounce his French citizenship, which took many frustrating months.

In 2009, he deployed as a new officer to Afghanistan, in charge of a platoon of battle-hardened soldiers at a small forward base in a dangerous hostile valley.

“We used to joke that it was like a minimum-security prison, except that the people outside the wire really want to kill you,” Groberg said. “So you don’t even want to leave the wire.”

Yet he was a believer in the mission. His background gave him a unique perspective on the war and on the role of religion in the conflict.

“We went out there to serve our nation, to fight for our freedoms, to help others and to fight for each other,” he said. “The U.S. is at war against evil people, not against a religion.”

“I have friends from all religions,” he said in an interview last fall. “My mom is Muslim. I’m getting married to a Jewish woman. We cannot let barriers divide us.”

He returned home from that first 217-day tour, then went back to Afghanistan for a second in 2012 with a promotion and a mission upgrade: to travel with and protect the top generals. He was mentally focused, always thinking ahead, and physically super fit.

“If you knew me in the military, I was always ‘Flo the Runner,’” he recalled.

The sprint toward the suicide bomber was to be the last race he’d ever run.

Therapy and recovery

Three of Groberg’s security team died in the explosion, as did an unarmed U.S. civilian with the delegation, an Egyptian-born American who trained the local villagers in growing new crops.

Though Groberg was closest to the bomb, chance dictated that he survived, but with severe wounds. The calf muscle on one leg was mostly torn away.

U.S. military doctors saved the leg, battling repeated infections that required removing tissue in multiple surgeries over 18 months of recovery.

Four years after his final surgery, his foot is now fused into position so that he cannot bend the ankle.

Groberg said that back at Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington, D.C., he was prepared to lose the leg to amputation, if needed.

“My issue was my mental health” – survivor guilt, he said. “You blame yourself. You replay the scenario over and over, trying to figure out what you could have done differently.”

A turning point at Walter Reed was a visit from Travis Mills, a soldier who’d lost parts of both arms and both legs from a bomb blast in Afghanistan just four months before Groberg’s suicide attack.

Mills, walking into the hospital room with four prosthetic limbs, talked about Groberg’s responsibility as a survivor to drag himself out of darkness and depression.

“In 15 minutes, he almost rewired me,” Groberg said.

The comradeship among severely wounded soldiers buoyed him during the long months of physical therapy as they all struggled to relearn how to do mundane activities.

Jason Pak, a field artillery officer who lost both legs and a couple of fingers in an explosion in Afghanistan several months after Groberg, recovered with him at Walter Reed.

“The Wounded Warrior community is very tight. We push each other to get active,” Pak said. “You see people running with blades, carrying heavy weights, cycling on a machine. It’s very motivating. Your life is not over.”

He and Groberg, Pak said, “always pushed each other and made fun of each other at the gym. We clicked without question.”

In 2015, President Obama, citing “extraordinary heroism and selflessness,” awarded the Medal of Honor to Groberg, the only immigrant so honored in America’s post-9/11 wars.

Love heals

Meeting Groberg on the job, you wouldn’t know he’s less than fully able. He’s still super fit, working out every day, doing a lot of elliptical work.

Positive energy flows from him in rapid conversation.

His mental strength owes much to the women who became his wife later in November, Carsen Zarin. When they met in 2014, he at once found someone to whom he could open up.

“The power of love is huge,” he said. The ability to fully trust another “relieves you of that potential trauma and anger.”

Obama, who developed a bond with Groberg’s family during a hospital visit, was invited to their wedding in the D.C. area.

The ceremony had Jewish elements from his wife’s tradition, and Groberg’s cousin from France read a poem “to reflect our Algerian and Muslim heritage.”

Groberg also credits his dog V, a German shepherd/pitbull mix, with helping him heal.

“It’s a powerful thing that animals can do,” he said. “V is family. She gives me and Carsen a way of going through life with even more joy.”

“Some of the trauma will never go away and V understands it,” he added. “She is there to remind me that all is good.”

A war hero at Boeing

Groberg’s role today reflects the focus on supporting veterans at Boeing, which employs more than 20,000 military vets, about 15 percent of its total workforce, half of them in the Pacific Northwest.

Boeing initially hired him in 2016 to take charge of philanthropic efforts directed toward vets. He and Pak, who had also joined Boeing, crafted new strategic priorities.

The result has been a jump in Boeing’s award of grant money for veterans-support organizations and sponsorships of events such as the Warrior Games for disabled vets held in the summer of 2017 in Chicago. Boeing gave $17 million in 2017 to veterans’ causes.

When Groberg moved over to Boeing Commercial Airplanes in February, Pak took his old job and now leads veterans-support programs.

Given that many military skills, such as aircraft maintenance, transfer directly to Boeing programs, the high percentage of vets in the ranks is perhaps unsurprising. But it goes well beyond that.

“Vets are not just good for what they did in the military,” Pak said. “Give them a mission, they’ll make sure it happens. You want these type of people in your workforce.”

Groberg’s switch to Boeing Commercial Airplanes, or BCA, was triggered by a motivational talk he gave in January 2018 to the company’s senior executives at their annual leadership retreat.

BCA Chief Executive Kevin McAllister said in an interview he was so impressed he felt that “having him around would make me better.”

“I picked up the phone and said, ‘I need you to join our team,’” McAllister said.

Groberg now serves as a key adviser to McAllister, helping plan his activities and priorities, managing the schedule for the BCA leadership team and making sure they have all the relevant information at their fingertips for every decision.

“Flo runs the weekly rhythm. He brings us all together,” McAllister said.

Ahead of a morning employee event to celebrate Veterans Day inside the Renton 737 assembly plant, Groberg walked the production floor and was eagerly greeted by workers.

Many, veterans themselves, clasped his hand and called him brother, including a Marine who fought in the bloody battle for Fallujah, Iraq, and an Army soldier who had served with Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin, one of the four men who died in the suicide bombing that injured Groberg.

“Flo connects with employees. When he walks the factory floor, he gets down there and talks to the team and listens,” McAllister said.

McAllister said having the mind of a military officer and war hero at his right hand adds useful diversity of thought as he tackles big decisions around where to steer Boeing.

“Nobody else on my leadership team has remotely lived through what Flo has,” he said.

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