Retired captain: We are veterans, and this is what we do

He joined the military to fight terrorism
He joined the military to fight terrorism

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Story highlights

  • Florent Groberg: The meaning of Veterans Day forever changed for me after I saw a suicide bomber kill my Army brothers
  • It's also a day to thank families for making a sacrifice every time a loved one is deployed, he writes

Florent Groberg is a retired US Army captain. This is part of the "First time I knew I wanted to serve" series. Groberg is the director of veterans outreach for the Boeing company, a Medal of Honor recipient and the co-author of "8 Seconds of Courage: A Soldier's Story from Immigrant to the Medal of Honor." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)After a violent year serving in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, I returned to the war-torn land in early 2012. On August 8 of that year, I was leading a security detail near the Pakistani border in Asadabad when my fellow soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Brink, noticed a suspicious figure stumbling toward our patrol.

It took eight seconds for me to reach the threat, who I soon realized was a suicide bomber. After I threw him to the ground, the attacker detonated his vest.
Florent Groberg
While most of our patrol survived, four incredible men did not. USAID Foreign Service Officer Ragaei Abdelfattah, US Air Force Maj. David Gray, and US Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin were among the dead. The fourth American hero to make the ultimate sacrifice that day was US Army Maj. Tom Kennedy.
    Before Kennedy deployed to Afghanistan, a neighbor asked why he was returning to the battlefield despite two previous tours in Iraq.
    "I'm a soldier," Kennedy replied. "This is what I do."
    Although Tom and I would eventually cross paths in Afghanistan, how we got there was different. While he grew up playing hockey in the New York suburbs, the early part of my childhood was spent kicking around a soccer ball in a town near Paris. In 1994, I arrived in the United States at 12 years old.
    Soon after my family settled into a Washington suburb, I received the dreadful news that my Uncle Abdou, an Algerian soldier, had been murdered by Islamic extremists. That terrible day pointed me toward military service, but it wasn't until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that I ultimately decided to join the Army. At the time, I had dual citizenship in France and the United States. After waiting for the French government to renounce my citizenship, I enlisted in the Army in 2008.
    As an immigrant, I wanted to earn my place as an American. While serving in the military wasn't the only way to do so, I felt an intense desire to give back to a country that had already given me so many opportunities to learn, grow and succeed.
    When I made the choice to serve, I knew that death was a part of war. But nothing really prepares you for it. I lost 50% of my lower left calf, lost hearing in my left ear, was in the hospital for 2.5 years and had 33 surgeries, but seeing the bodies of my fallen friends hurt more than the injuries I suffered in the explosion. It was the worst moment of my life.
    My team of fellow survivors and I wouldn't reunite until 2015, on the night before Veterans Day. As I write in my new book, "8 Seconds of Courage," the pain of losing friends in battle never subsides.
    Over a few beers later that night, Brink -- the first soldier to spot the suicide bomber -- pulled me aside to share that one of the soldiers in our group was still having a hard time speaking about the events of that day. After we asked the soldier how he was doing, he eventually decided not to participate in the next day's marathon interview session.
    More than three years after the suicide bombing, my Army brother was still hurting deeply inside, which made sharing his story with strangers very difficult. It reminded me that so many combat veterans, including myself, grapple with these types of emotions daily.
    I received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on November 12, 2015. What made the ceremony so special was that my fellow Afghanistan veterans and -- most importantly -- the families of my fallen military brothers were able to join us at the White House.
    For me, the meaning of Veterans Day changed forever on August 8, 2012. It is a day to honor all who have served, like my four fallen friends and fellow veterans like Brink and my medic, Spc. Daniel Balderrama, who helped save my life. It is also a day to thank their families, who often sacrifice every bit as much as the man or woman who deploys.
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    Sixteen years after the US-led coalition's invasion of Afghanistan, I believe America has found a new "Greatest Generation." Without taking anything away from the patriots who fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and other conflicts, the current all-volunteer force will likely be forced to shoulder at least two decades of constant war.
    When I made my decision to serve on 9/11, a future warrior was sitting in kindergarten or preschool, too young to comprehend the horrors of terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Today, that young man or woman is following in the footsteps of my teammates in Afghanistan and other global hot spots.
    All Americans have a sacred duty to not only spotlight the sacrifices of fallen heroes, Gold Star families, and veterans, but also to thank the next Greatest Generation of vets. Without their willingness to step forward in wartime, we would be at the mercy of enemies much like the evil men who murdered my uncle and stole my friends from their loved ones.
    Those of us who have experienced war firsthand also have a responsibility to honor and nurture the brave men and women who are still fighting. After all, to slightly modify the powerful words of Maj. Tom Kennedy: We are veterans, and this is what we do.