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Soldier Who Tackled Suicide Bomber To Receive Medal Of Honor

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

On an August day three years ago in Afghanistan, Captain Flo Groberg tackled a suicide bomber, saving the lives of nearly two dozen soldiers and officials. Today at the White House, President Obama will present him with the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for combat bravery. NPR's Tom Bowman talked with Groberg and his comrades.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Capt. Groberg can't quite put his finger on it. But looking back now, something just didn't seem right.

FLO GROBERG: That day, it just felt a little bit different when we got on the ground. We had done this patrol multiple times.

BOWMAN: His platoon sergeant, Brian Brink, shared that sense of unease as they prepared to move out once again from their small base to the provincial governor's compound in Kunar Province for a meeting.

BRIAN BRINK: It was kind of a - like a gut feeling that just didn't sit right with us.

BOWMAN: Sgt. Brink led the patrol down the paved road that narrowed to a small bridge. That's when they saw the first sign of trouble. Two motorcycles appeared on the bridge. The riders ditched the bikes and walked off. Suddenly, Brink spotted something odd, a man walking backwards alongside the patrol. Then the man turned toward them with a blank stare.

BRINK: He was looking in my eyes. I was eye-to-eye with this suicide bomber. I realized he was bad. I could see the bulge on his hip.

BOWMAN: A bulge that signified a bomb. Groberg rushed him with Sergeant Andrew Mahoney, both soldiers pushing the bomber away from the patrol.

GROBERG: Then we grabbed him and threw him to the ground, and he detonated at our feet.

BOWMAN: With a deafening explosion, shrapnel sliced into Mahoney's arm, cutting it to the bone. Groberg was in worse shape. His leg was in shreds. Before he passed out, Groberg screamed for the medic.

DANIEL BALDERRAMA: He was calling for me - yelling, Doc, Doc, save my leg.

BOWMAN: That's Sergeant Daniel Balderrama, who was also wounded by shrapnel. Balderrama couldn't walk, so he scurried over on his knees and applied a tourniquet to Groberg's leg.

BALDERRAMA: And I remember seeing his boots covered in blood, his leg covered in blood and - at no time did I think he was going to die.

BOWMAN: Four other Americans did die that day, Air Force Major Walter Gray, USAID Officer Ragaei Abdelfattah, Army Major Thomas Kennedy and Command Sergeant Major Kevin Griffin. Sgt. Brink remembered Griffin as a stickler for the rules but was close to his soldiers.

BRINK: Sgt. Maj. Griffin - the first think he would ask you is, how's your family? We're in the middle of Afghanistan doing what we've got to do every day, but he always - how's your family? Maj. Kennedy, same thing.

BOWMAN: Sgt Brink thinks many more in that patrol of nearly two dozen would have met the same fate had it not been for Capt. Groberg. For his part, Groberg brushes aside talk of heroism. He said he only reacted, and he struggles with why he survived that day and others did not.

GROBERG: We all fought those demons of, why not me? In the end, you know, it's combat. And - right - all we can do now is honor those guys and their families.

BOWMAN: He underwent some 30 surgeries on his left leg. On his right wrist, he wears a silver bracelet etched with the names of those who died on that dusty street in Kunar Province. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.