SERGEANT FIRST CLASS ROBERT GROFF: BRONZE STAR RECIPIENT
Sergeant First Class Robert Groff returned to the kill zone when under attack to evacuate American civilian drivers and his Soldiers...
"SMALL TOWN BOY"
Sergeant First Class Robert Groff grew up in Bartonville, Illinois, a place so small that nearby Peoria was considered the "big city." A true small-town boy, Groff attended school at the old brownstone elementary on Adams Street. For fun, he and his friends would spend hours in the nearby woods playing "Army." They talked and dreamed about someday joining the Army and jumping out of airplanes.
"WE WORKED HARD FOR WHAT WE HAD"
SFC Groff's family was close-knit and supportive.
My two sisters and I, we didn't have much, but what we did have my mom and stepdad worked very hard for.
Two of Robert's uncles had served in the Army, one in Turkey and the other in Vietnam, but Robert never heard them talk about it. In high school, the idea of joining the Army began to interest him. Two of his cousins had enlisted and were stationed in Germany. Home on leave, they would tell Robert colorful stories of their travels through Europe. And when his best friend entered the Army and began jumping out of airplanes, Robert decided to talk to an Army Recruiter. He also enrolled at the local community college, knowing that his mother, Sandra, hoped for him to earn a degree. But it didn't take long before he realized that college wasn't his calling - at least not yet. The idea of serving in the Army attracted young Groff even more. He was now 18 years old and soon made up his mind.
I signed up for four years. I knew I could go to college afterward and the Army would pay for it. My mom supported me, like she always did. And she made sure I held up my end of the bargain and one day attended college.
"THE FIRST GULF WAR"
After he completed Basic Training, Groff's first duty station was in Germany as part of the 144th Ordnance Company. Like his cousins, Groff was seeing the world and he couldn't have been happier. In late 1990, Groff learned his unit was deploying as part of Operation Desert Storm. He would soon get to see an even more unique part of the world.
As a young private, Groff was nervous on the flight to the Middle East. But any fear he had soon gave way to the challenge and the heat. Attached to a unit at a rear ammunition supply point in Saudi Arabia, Groff and his fellow Soldiers ensured that ammunition was sent north to the troops who needed it. The war seemed distant and was over quickly. To Private Groff, the First Gulf War felt like an extended training mission.
Following the end of Operation Desert Storm, Private Groff returned to Germany with his unit. For a year he lived the Army life he'd only heard about from his cousins. He worked hard but on his time off he traveled throughout Germany and made trips to France and Spain. Groff spent the last two years of his commitment stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. When his enlistment was up, Groff wanted to go to college but didn't want to leave the Army. He weighed his options and decided to join the Army Reserves.
At first it was difficult to go from active duty to reserve duty. But I knew this would be the best way to get my education-and to get my education paid for-and still be part of the Army.
Groff had the best of both worlds. The Army paid for him to go to college while he worked in the civilian sector. Being committed to the Army one weekend a month and an additional two weeks in the summer was a good deal. And he got paid. But more importantly, he remained a part of the Army he had grown to love.
Back home in Bartonville, Groff enrolled again at the local community college and started hanging out at his mother's beauty salon. Sandra had recently hired a young beautician who caught his eye-Karrie, a beautiful young woman from neighboring Kickapoo. Robert knew that he would one day marry her.
"NOT MANY HAVE SERVED IN TWO WARS"
After earning a bachelor's degree in 1999, Robert and Karrie married and began raising her daughter Cassandra. Groff had earned his bachelor's in accounting from the University of Illinois at Springfield in the spring of 1999, and was now working at a large accounting firm in Peoria. In September 2001, Groff was at his desk early when another employee came in and told him to turn on the TV. Shortly after the second World Trade Center tower fell in New York City, Groff telephoned his superiors to find out if he needed to report to his unit. As a Soldier, he knew war was coming. In November 2003, Sergeant Robert Groff was called to duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The first time I was deployed it was just me. This time I had a wife and child. In February, Karrie and my stepdaughter, Cassandra, along with my parents, came up to Fort McCoy to say good-bye.
THE 724th IN Iraq
By the time the Illinois Reserve unit was called up, Groff had become a Platoon Sergeant. Groff's unit, the 724th Transportation Company, was responsible for hauling bulk petroleum in their five-thousand-gallon tankers along the dangerous thoroughfares of Iraq. From tanks and helicopters to HMMWVs and the generators that keep the air conditioners humming, nothing operates in Iraq without fuel. In wartime, fuel is as important as bullets.
We all went together, guys who had been together for five or ten years. We'd gone to each other's weddings, been over to each other's houses for dinner, and now we were in Kuwait, training and waiting for our vehicles to arrive.
The 724th rolled into Iraq from Kuwait in the middle of the night in early March 2004. Groff knew that the Army training he had received in the previous 12 years had prepared him well. His unit had bonded at Fort McCoy and, although he had never been shot at, he felt confident in his ability to lead his men. They were well- trained, well-equipped and ready for their mission.
The next day, they reached Camp Anaconda, a bustling base with jets landing and personnel moving in and out. For the first few weeks, Groff and his Platoon Leader would perform "ride-alongs" with the unit they were replacing, to learn the routes, radio procedures and mission operations of the fuel convoys that would soon be handed to the 724th. Groff felt more confident with every briefing.
APRIL 9, 2004
On April 9, 2004, at 10:30 a.m., a 23 vehicle convoy composed of civilian vehicles and members of Groff's platoon rolled out of Camp Anaconda and headed south, hauling 125,000 gallons of fuel to Baghdad International Airport some 80 miles away. The convoy commander was in the lead HMMWV, or "Vehicle 1." Second in command, Sergeant Robert Groff, was in the passenger seat of an up-armored HMMWV, "Vehicle 21," at the rear of the convoy. For the first 50 minutes the convoy moved at a normal speed. Groff observed that civilians were out in the streets and traffic was moderate. The weather was clear. It was just another day in Iraq.
WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE?
Then, 10 minutes later as the giant convoy rolled through the northern part of Baghdad, toward the airport, Groff observed that the civilians in the streets were thinning out and traffic had all but disappeared.
When there are no kids out playing or farmers farming, we knew to be alert...
Soon Groff received a radio report from his commander that the front of the convoy was taking small arms fire. Nearly two miles behind at the rear of the convoy, Groff kept moving and maintained radio communications.
With guardrails on both sides of the six-lane highway, there was no place to turn a huge tanker around. Groff's vehicle soon passed a burning tanker spewing black smoke across the highway. As they pushed through the smoke they saw chunks of concrete and guardrails strewn across the road. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) exploded nearby. And then another. The rear of the convoy began taking small arms fire. Still unaware of the size of the enemy force he was facing, Groff tried the radio. Silence.
At the rear of the convoy and out of radio contact, Sergeant Groff and his men acted decisively. Groff engaged the enemy from the passenger window of his HMMWV while his driver fired to the left and steered the vehicle. The sound of the M249 SAW machine gun in their HMMWV turret laying down suppressive fire was deafening. Diesel fuel from leaking tankers covered the highway in a slick film while black smoke filled the air. Through the smoke, Groff saw one of the wounded civilian drivers climbing out of his disabled truck. Groff jumped into the crossfire and assisted the driver to the relative safety of his HMMWV.
Groff's vehicle soon encountered more disabled tankers as IEDs continued to explode. Groff picked up three more drivers seeking cover from the hail of bullets. The HMMWV, designed to seat four people, now carried eight. Rounds continued to ricochet off the HMMWV as the SAW laid down withering fire toward insurgents hiding in buildings and ditches along both sides of the highway.
TRAINING KICKS IN
Soon, three more figures appeared out of the smoke as Groff's vehicle forged ahead. Again, Groff stopped and loaded the men into the vehicle as a burst of fire shattered Groff's window. Groff's HMMWV, badly damaged by incoming fire, shuddered to a halt. Groff's men continued to engage the enemy. With eleven Soldiers and civilian drivers packed inside the crippled vehicle, Groff had to make a decision. Should they stay in the HMMWV and wait for support, or should they take the wounded men and leave the vehicle?
Sergeant Groff remained calm and continued trying to make radio contact. He ordered the group to conserve ammunition. Finally, radio contact was established with an NCO who had reached a safe area ahead. The Calvary was on the way.
"WHAT'S UP, SERGEANT GROFF?"
Through the smoke Groff saw an M1 tank in the distance. It was a beautiful sight. The decision to remain in the shelter of the up-armored HMMWV proved to be the right one. Inside the vehicle, drivers with prior military experience were using combat lifesaving techniques to treat the wounded men. Another driver reloaded magazines as Groff's Soldiers continued to engage the enemy.
Finally, two Bradley fighting vehicles and two HMMWVs pulled up. The Bradleys laid down fire from their .50 caliber machine guns. Groff and his men transferred the wounded from the sturdy shell of Vehicle 21 to the two HMMWVs for extraction from the kill zone. Before they drove off, Groff grabbed the extra ammo, weapons and communications devices from his vehicle.
Once inside a safe area-an abandoned milk plant-Groff and the commander of the Cavalry unit ensured the wounded received treatment and assessed the situation. Only four tankers had made it to the safe area and they were badly damaged and leaking fuel. The losses were heavy but could have been much worse. In a few hours, a small-town boy from the heart of America had become a seasoned veteran. The 724th had driven into an estimated fighting force of more than 250 armed insurgents. Groff's men had looked to him for decisive leadership when it counted, and he hadn't let them down.
For his heroic actions in battle that day, leadership and personal courage, Sergeant Robert Groff was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor. Today, Sergeant Groff still lives in Bartonville, Illinois, with his wife, Karrie, and his stepdaughter, Cassandra. He currently works as an Army Reserve Recruiter in the big city, Peoria. SFC Groff knows he has much to offer young men and women, to help them achieve their goals in life through the U.S. Army. He rarely talks about what he gave to the Army that day near Baghdad. Instead, he tells prospective Recruits what the Army has given to him: a college education, a chance to see the world, a future, and, when he least expected it, an opportunity to prove himself...to himself.
Am I a Hero? I don't know about that. It's an honor to be recognized, but that day I was just doing my job.
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