When planners for the Democratic National Convention called Florent Groberg to ask him if he’d like to speak at the event, and possibly endorse Hillary Clinton on national television, he wondered if they knew anything about him.
“I’ve basically always been a Republican,” he told Task & Purpose. “I grew up that way, and as a military guy.”
Groberg was awarded the Medal of Honor in late 2015 for tackling a suicide bomber who approached his security team during a 2012 patrol in Asadabad, Afghanistan. Since receiving the award, he’s spoken often of the public balancing act the medal requires, between advocating for causes that affect veterans and the military while not casting the medal’s legacy in a selfish or inappropriate light. It’s a balancing act that other recipients of the medal have also taken on this year, including former Marine Dakota Meyer, who endorsed Ted Cruz in the primaries, and Army Ranger Leroy Petry, who filmed an ad for Jeb Bush.
Meyer, in an interview with Task & Purpose, dismissed the idea that medal recipients should stay out of politics.
“So many people get wrapped up in this thing that there’s a certain way you have to live your life because of the medal,” he said. “There’s a certain way I have to live because I’m a U.S. Marine, first and a veteran.”
“We’re grown men,” Petry told Task & Purpose. “We’re allowed to make our own decision. You get so many opportunities to go different places to make an impact. You look at each case by case. The top priorities are supporting our military, veterans and gold star families.”
When Petry backed Bush last year, he said, “It was based on my feelings that he would have been, and that he is, a great leader.”
In 2015, then-Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush released an ad featuring Medal of Honor recipients. Watch it below.
Groberg said that convention planners found him through his current role at LinkedIn, where he promotes the company’s services for veterans re-entering the workforce.
“They told me they liked my message and would I like to speak,” he said.
Groberg took a few days to think about it. “I didn’t want to be a political pawn for anyone,” he said. “I did my research.”
He came away believing that Clinton did not get enough credit for her work around the military and veterans, including her support as a senator to increase benefits for surviving families of those killed in combat.
“I know people are like, ‘She hates the military,’” said Groberg. “I personally couldn't find any evidence of it.”
But while he was new to Clinton’s record, he has spent much of the last year listening to Donald Trump. And the more he listened, he said, the less he recognized Trump’s America.
“I’m an immigrant,” Groberg said. “I got a Muslim family. He doesn't fit my bill and I don’t fit his.”
Born in Poissy, France, to an American father and Algerian mother, Groberg became a naturalized U.S. citizen after high school (he is the first foreign-born Medal of Honor recipient since Vietnam). While Groberg is a Lutheran, one of his childhood heroes was his mother’s brother, a major in the Algerian military and a Muslim, who fought against Muslim terrorists.
When he agreed to speak, Groberg told organizers, “I’m not going to talk about Benghazi or the economy. I’m going to talk about veterans. They gave me my freedom to talk about veterans and to name my four guys.”
Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Army Capt. Florent Groberg, (Ret.) speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Thursday, July 28, 2016.AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Groberg spoke as one of a handful of non-politician voices on the convention’s final night, a group that included Khizr Khan. Khan's speech on the 2004 death of his son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, in Iraq became the convention's enduring image. Groberg said he spoke with Khan backstage for about 15 minutes. Like Groberg, Khan had confronted a suicide bomber, and the elder Khan said he and his wife had watched his Medal of Honor ceremony on television.
Another military speaker at the Democratic National Convention was Gen. John Allen, a former Marine who commanded all U.S. forces in Afghanistan from July 2011 to February 2013. Allen attacked Trump in a booming delivery. Within days, that speech drew a strong rebuke from Gen. Martin Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who called out Allen, as well asLt Gen. Mike Flynn for speaking at the Republican Convention. Dempsey argued that former military leaders should steer clear of politics.
A similar argument is often made about Medal of Honor recipients. Living recipients number far fewer than retired generals, and their words, when they do choose to speak out, often garner more attention, particularly in military circles.
Doug Sterner, a Medal of Honor historian in Pueblo, Colorado, said that political speech is both a touchy subject among medal recipients, but also well within the medal’s traditions.
“The previous generation of Medal of Honor recipients has been quick to instill in our younger heroes the very serious need to not demean the medal,” Sterner told Task & Purpose. “But that has never meant a prohibition on speaking politically.”
Reflecting generational differences, said Sterner, World War II-era vets have traditionally been less likely to engage publicly while many who earned the medal in Korea and Vietnam felt compelled to speak out upon their return.
Sterner cites a long list of Medal of Honor recipients who entered the political fray, either as elected officials or activist. Joshua Chamberlain, awarded the Medal for actions at Gettysburg, became the governor of Maine. Former Commandant of the Marine Corps David Shoup, who earned the medal leading Marines during landings at Tarawa in 1943, was an early and vocal critic of the Vietnam War. And in the 1990s, two Medal of Honor recipients, Bob Kerrey and Daniel Inouye, served together in the Senate.
Dakota Meyer, Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient, gives the keynote address during the Marine Corps Community Services, Okinawa transition summit seminar, June 11 on Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan.DoD photo
Recipients, said Steiner, have landed on both sides of the political aisle, though Petry admitted that Groberg’s endorsement of Clinton will be a source of some friendly kidding from others with conservative views. “You know, we joke around. I was talking to one of the other recipients and we were like, ‘Really?’” said Petry. “But, at end of the day you have to respect his beliefs. I didn’t think he was out of line.”
Meyer took a similar view: “I think Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are both terrible candidates, but Flo told me he was speaking at the DNC, I said that's great. Flo is a close friend, a brother and I support him 100 percent. Why would you not want a person like that speaking out?”
Groberg said he expected those reactions. “General Allen told me, ‘We’re gonna take a lot of flack for this from our Republican friends,’” he said. And if the primaries had gone differently, his loyalties might have too.
“I thought a Kasich or a Rubio would have been awesome to put in front,” Groberg added. “Instead we pick a man who has consistently gone out of his way to make statements I don't support.”