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Six months after battle, Carson soldier on road to recovery

By: JAKOB RODGERS
February 16, 2013
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photo - Capt. Florent Groberg, facing camera, hugs outgoing brigade commander Col. James Mingus Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, after the Change of Command ceremony for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson's Special Events Center.   (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE
Capt. Florent Groberg, facing camera, hugs outgoing brigade commander Col. James Mingus Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, after the Change of Command ceremony for the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson's Special Events Center. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE 

WASHINGTON -- Dilaudid, Neurontin and Benadryl.

“Benadryl for the itching, because I itch everywhere,” Capt. Florent Groberg said.

The 29-year-old watched other men with prosthetic legs walk past him on Tuesday in a cafeteria at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington D.C. Groberg’s left leg was immobilized in a blue cast, one not 30 minutes old.

Six months of numbing drugs. Six months away from home.

While nearly 3,000 soldiers with Fort Carson’s 4th Brigade Combat Team got on with their lives in Colorado when they returned home in November and December from Afghanistan, Groberg remained 1,600 miles away at one of the nation’s largest military hospitals.

He lives in a soldier’s barracks while tenants rent his three bedroom house with its two-car garage in Colorado Springs.

He waits for doctor’s appointments. He’s always waiting.

“You know how people dread going to the hospital, or to the doctor’s because they hate waiting?” Groberg said. “You know how you hate that? That’s like my daily life.

“Yeah. It sucks.”

The skin grafts, the stretched tendons, the 27 operations to deal with the missing flesh torn from his calf — six months of pain and drug-laced monotony began with nine seconds of terror in Afghanistan.

•••

Groberg walked along a street in Asadabad, Afghanistan, a route that he said Americans had walked 15 minutes earlier while checking for insurgents.

The captain, two colonels, two command sergeants major and a host of Fort Carson officers on Aug. 8 strode toward an Afghan provincial building.

Nearby, an Afghan man walked backwards.

Groberg couldn’t figure it out. His sergeant noticed it, and then Groberg saw it too — this man, walking backwards, “acting real iffy.”

“The hardest part of the war that we’re fighting is recognizing your foes — you know, good from foes,” Groberg said.

“And then one of them will make a right turn and just blow himself up.”

This man walking backwards suddenly turned 90 degrees. Then he came for Col. James Mingus, the brigade’s commander.

Groberg met him, hit him — and with his sergeant by his side, threw the Afghan onto the ground.

Moments later, the captain woke up 30 feet from where he had stood.

In that time, a second suicide bomber had struck from a different direction, said Maj. Christopher Thomas, a brigade spokesman.

Groberg’s helmet straps were loose, so he threw it off. His rifle was “chewed up,” so he cast it aside. He saw something — a child maybe — lying dead to his left.

One soldier grabbed Groberg. Another, Spc. Daniel Balderrama, went to work.

The blast ripped two ligaments inside the specialist’s knee, but still Balderrama tied a tourniquet on the captain’s leg.

“I got you, sir,” Groberg remembers hearing. “You’ll be fine, sir. We’re going to save that leg. You’ll be good. No problem, sir.”

Around them, chaos reigned.

Bleeding from a ball bearing that tore through his wrist, Lt. Col. Brandon Newton searched for the brigade’s top enlisted soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin.

He found the stocky man.

“He was — obviously, he didn’t feel a thing,” said Newton, then the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. “So you make hard decisions with the medics.”

Griffin died, as did Maj. Thomas Kennedy, Maj. Walter Gray — an Air Force officer who helped coordinate air strikes — and Ragaei Abdel Fattah, a state department employee.

As the dust cleared, Groberg got one more status report — “KIA, sir. All of them, KIA.”

A soldier put him in a four-seat, armored vehicle and slammed the door.

He was alone. Reality sank in. His leg no longer felt numb.

“It felt like somebody took a blowtorch, just fricking burning my leg,” Groberg said. “My leg was melting.

“It was the worst pain I ever felt. Until this damn surgery.”

•••

The procedure was as complicated as it was graphic.

To illustrate the point, Groberg pulled out his phone and showed pictures.

Seven incisions, each helping to stretch a tendon from inside his left foot to the other side, were made by doctors on Feb. 4 at Walter Reed.

The painful surgery — his 27th since the Aug. 8 attack — was a setback to a recovery process that appeared to near an end last month.

In the months immediately following the bombing, doctors pulled skin from his thigh to patch up his calf, which lost 45-percent of its muscle to ball bearings from the suicide bomber’s vest.

Groberg slowly put weight on the foot. He used an Alter-G Treadmill, which inflates a balloon around the waist, holding the patient up while simulating a feeling of walking on air.

He doesn’t anticipate ever doing anything strenuous without a carbon-fiber brace. But five months after the attack, he ran half a mile on a treadmill in four minutes.

“You couldn’t even tell I’d been injured,” he said. “But then again, my foot was caving in.”

In late January, tendons inside his foot slowly constricted, turning the limb into a club.

“It was real iffy,” he said. “We didn’t know if it (the surgery) was going to happen until about two weeks ago. It was kind of last minute.”

Nearly every day since that operation, he’s played video games or read in bed. He’s read about two dozen books since August.

His mother is helping, cooking and cleaning his room while he downs cocktails of pain pills.

There is the so-called “good life of Walter Reed,” he said. Celebrities and politicians — Chicago White Sox players, NASCAR driver Kurt Busch and President Barack Obama — have stopped by his room.

But those are exceptions. Most days, he’s alone with his mother and his doctors.

His comrades are back at Fort Carson.

“I don’t stay in touch as often as I could with some of my soldiers because you kind of want to be there,” Groberg said. “I’ve got my mission here to get better. I don’t want to be living in two spots at once.”

•••

Groberg clutched Mingus’ hand.

For months, he had wanted to see his boss. His chance came with a last-minute plane ticket back to Colorado Springs.

On Thursday, at a ceremony at Fort Carson commemorating Mingus’ departure to another post, Groberg bid the colonel farewell. Mingus suffered a concussion in the August blast.

The captain leaned in and gave the man he was protecting that August day a hug.

Groberg watched as the widow of a man who died in the attack wept nearby.

That woman, Pam Griffin, received a standing ovation from hundreds of people in memory of her husband, Command Sgt. Maj. Griffin. She accepted that applause, then let out a deep sigh that shook her body.

“It does hurt — she understands it,” Groberg said. “She’s such a strong woman. It’s hard to see it, but it shows how resilient people can be.”

Also at Thursday’s ceremony was Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Mulryan, the top enlisted soldier of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. He was in the group of leaders the bombers attacked, and he watched Griffin die. He sought therapy with the brigade’s psychologist, Katie Kopp, after surviving the attack.

“It’s tough. ... I saw her — I don’t know how many times,” said Mulryan, as he fought back tears.

Groberg also goes to therapy — but he prefers to call it “social work.”

“It’s not therapy,” Groberg said. “You just go out there and talk about like, how’s everything.”

He paused.

“Like, I guess it is almost like therapy. I guess it is.”

Groberg said he’s made peace with what happened.

“In my own mind, I take full responsibility,” Groberg said. “It’s my patrol and I lost four people. I mean, it’s just the way it is.

“People sort of like look at it saying it could have been worse. Yeah, I mean, the way they did it, I don’t know how we could have stopped it from anybody being hurt.”

That mindset was captured in the ultimatum he gave doctors after his last surgery.

He OK’d the operation — so long as he could attend an Army leadership course for captains on May 27 at Fort Benning, Ga.

His ambition has precedent in the Army.

Army medical technology advanced during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, helping soldiers survive once-deadly battlefield wounds. And the Army became more willing to accommodate injured soldiers, often by finding them less strenuous positions, said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

It remains to be seen whether that practice will change with the Army’s plans to downsize as the war in Afghanistan winds to a close.

“If you have fewer warriors, then you have to be more sure that all of your soldiers can be warriors.” Segal said.

Groberg’s wants to regain his title as a company commander.

“I love what I do — I appreciate what I do, I appreciate the people I work with,” Groberg said.

“Plus, I kind of want to see their faces when one of those little kids tells me... ‘I can’t do that, I can’t run two miles,” Groberg said. “And I show up with a brace and a Frankenstein leg and I beat them. And I’m like ‘If I can do it as a gimp, you don’t think you can do it?’

“Cmon, now. Let’s get real.”

Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

Facebook Jakob Rodgers

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