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Major Assault Against ISIS in Sinjar; Sinjar Important is War Against ISIS; Obama Awards Medal of Honor to Florent Groberg. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired November 12, 2015 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No well-dressed man should be without one.

JEANNE MOOS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): No well-dressed man should be without one, especially when taking liberties with a certain well-dressed lady.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: I'd like to go to work that way.

Thanks for joining me. I'm Carol Costello.

AT THIS HOUR with Berman and Bolduan starts now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now -- U.S. forces involved in a major offensive as they try to retake a key town from ISIS. CNN is on the front lines of the battle, ahead.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Above and beyond the call of duty. He tackled a suicide bomber, saving countless lives and, in moments, this hero will receive the Medal of Honor. We have live coverage ahead.

BOLDUAN: Donald Trump says he'll use a deportation force to move out 11 million undocumented immigrants. But is that possible? We'll ask the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He's joining us.

Hello, I'm Kate Bolduan.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman.

Breaking news. A key moment in the battle against ISIS. A major assault in northern Iraq. U.S. coalition warplanes hitting targets this morning, providing cover in this new intense fight to reclaim a strategic city?

BOLDUAN: This operation centers on the town of Sinjar. Kurdish soldiers are attacking ISIS there from three sides.

Senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is near the front lines of this battle with more.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The key fight for Sinjar seems to be what you can't really see behind me along the main road known as Route 47. Now, that is vital because it heads from Mosul in Iraq, in that direction, to Raqqa in Syria, in that direction, the caliphate self-declared capital.

We've been seeing intense air strikes in the past hours or so. A lot of coalition aircraft in the skies above. While everyone understands that Sinjar, the need to retake it is deeply symbolic because of the brutality inflicted on ISIS, the enslavement, the captivity of women and even children at times when that town was overrun by is last year, it's also a deeply strategic town because it sits on that main highway.

Now, we can't disclose our exact location because of the rules the Peshmerga put on us for going with them, but this is a main road here. And we have seen that the Peshmerga are now on it, quite clearly. It seems able to hold that particular position.

In fact, in the far west on this town, presumably an ISIS position has been heavily hit recently. Consistent explosions along the skyline here.

Sinjar itself, the subject, it seems to be four plumes of thick, black smoke that haven't stopped.

There was optimism this fight would take days, hours from some Kurdish officials, but at dawn, when the operation began in earnest but that has looked up. They're slowed down by mines and ISIS who simply don't to want give up this road.

Back to you.


BOLDUAN: Nick Paton Walsh near the front lines of this battle that's going on as we speak.

Our viewers, you will remember this heart-wrenching scene from Sinjar last year. This is when thousands of people that were living in and around the town, they ran for their lives as ISIS moved in.

Our correspondent, Ivan Watson, was aboard when the helicopters that went in and ended up flying out as many people they could fit on board. You see babies being handed on there. The U.N. estimates 5,000 men and boys have been slaughtered by is there and young girls and women sold into slavery.

BERMAN: Joining us now, retired Army brigadier general, Mark Kimmitt, who returned from Iraq yesterday.

General, thank you for being with us. Obviously, returning those people's homes to them is of serious

importance. Let's talk about the strategic value of Sinjar. Hopefully, we can put up a map to show where it is. Tell us why Sinjar is important in the battle against ISIS, both in Iraq and Syria.

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT, RETIRED U.S. ARMY: As Nick brought out, it really is a choke point between Raqqa in Syria and Mosul to the east. The real objective for the Iraqi security forces is Mosul. Retaking Mosul in the near term has been an objective for them for quite some time. By taking Sinjar you cut route 47, which makes it easier to take Mosul because it cuts off the ability of ISIS to supply logistics, supply troops, supply ammunition from Syria.

BOLDUAN: General, as Nick was saying, there was optimism this would take hours, just days to retake Sinjar. When you look at the balance here in terms of the man power, some 7500 Peshmerga soldiers on this fight against several hundred -- maybe 700, if you will, that's a slippery number, of ISIS fighters, but there are real challenges the Peshmerga are up against in trying to take this town. What are the difficulties they have?

[11:05:12] KIMMITT: When you go from fighting out in the open where American aircraft can provide so much support to fighting inside the city, those numerical differences are, in many ways, immaterial. Fighting in urban terrain, going from house to house, where you can't use the American air support, where you can't use artillery, where you can't use mortars, gives the advantage to the defender. So, it may be a couple hundred against 7,000 but in my mind, is could continue this fight for quite some time.

BERMAN: You say this is a sort of stepping stone to Mosul, which is the ultimate goal. I think a lot of times in the U.S. we lose sight of the fact that ISIS has occupied the second largest city in Iraq for about 18 months now. And nothing has seemed to budge them in any way. Do you think what you're seeing so far, and we're about 12 hours into this now, indicates that there is progress toward that ultimate goal of liberating that city?

KIMMITT: For Sinjar, I believe that's going to take weeks. For Mosul, I believe the Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga forces are going to need months before they're able to go into Mosul and retake that from ISIS. It will not be a quick fight.

BERMAN: Not at all, not with them in that city and dug in for more than 18 months.

General Mark Kimmitt, thanks for being with us. Appreciate it.


BOLDUAN: Thanks, General.

Coming up for us, a deportation force. That is what Donald Trump says he would use to enforce his immigration plan, which of course includes removing some 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States right now. But could a Trump administration or any administration for that matter pull that off? We'll ask the head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection ahead.

BERMAN: Handcuffs, shackled, tasered multiple times while in police custody. Graphic new video. A man's family demanding answers.

Plus, he tackled a suicide bomber. He saved countless lives. Honestly, above and beyond the call of duty. AT THIS HOUR, retired Army captain receives the nation's highest military honor.


[11:11:24] BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He wasn't sure but he thought he was in Germany. And someone was at his bedside, talking to him. And he thought it was the lead singer from the heavy metal band, Korn.


Flo thought, what's going on? Am I hallucinating? But he wasn't. It was all real.

And so today, Flo, I want to assure you, you are not hallucinating. You are actually in the White House. Those cameras are on. I am not the lead singer from Korn.


We are here to award you our nation's highest military honor distinction, the Medal of Honor.

Now, Flo and I have actually met before. Three years ago, I was on one of my regular visits to Walter Reed to spend time with our wounded warriors and Flo was one of them. We talked. Turns out, he likes the Chicago Bears, so I liked him right away.


And I had a chance to meet his parents, who could not be more gracious and charming. And you get a sense of where Flo gets his character from.

It is wonderful to see both of you again.

I also want to welcome Flo's girlfriend, Carson, who apparently Flo tells me he had to help paint an apartment with just the other day --


-- so there's some honey-do lists going on.


His many friends, fellow soldiers, and family, all of our distinguished guests. A day after Veterans Day, we honor this American veteran, whose story,

like so many of our vets and wounded warriors, speaks so much not just gallantry but resilience here at home. As a teenager up the road in Bethesda, Flo discovered he had an incredible gift. He could run, fast. Half mile, mile, two miles. He'd leave his competition in the dust. He was among the best in the state and he went on to run track and cross country at the University of Maryland. Flo's college coach called him the consummate teammate. As good as he was in individual events, somehow he always found a little something extra when he was running on a relay with a team. Distance running is really all about guts. As one teammate said, Flo could suffer a little more than everyone else could. So, day after day, month after month, he pushed himself to his limit. He knew that every long run, every sprint, every interval could help shave a second or two off his times. And as he'd find out later, a few seconds can make all the difference. Training, guts, teamwork, what made Flo a great runner also made him a great soldier.

In the Army, Flo again took his training seriously, hitting the books in the classroom, paying attention to every detail and field exercises because he knew that he had to be prepared for any scenario. He deployed to Afghanistan twice, first, as a platoon leader, and then a couple years later when he was hand-picked to head up a security detail.

[11:15:08] So it was on an August day three years ago that Flo found himself leading a group of American and African soldiers as they escorted their commanders to a meeting with local Afghans. It was a journey that the team had done many times before, a short walk on foot, including passage over a narrow bridge. At first, they passed pedestrians, a few cars and bicycles, even some children, but then they began to approach the bridge. And a pair of motorcycles sped toward them from the other side. The Afghan troops shouted at the bikers to stop, and they did, ditching their bikes in the middle of the bridge and running away. And that's when Flo noticed something to his left, a man dressed in dark clothing walking backwards just some 10 feet away. The man spun around and turned toward them. And that's when Flo sprinted toward him. He pushed him away from the formation and, as he did, he noticed an object under the man's clothing, a bomb. The motorcycles had been a diversion. And at that moment, Flo did something extraordinary. He grabbed the bomber by his vest and kept pushing him away. And all those years of training, on the track, in the classroom, out in the field, all of it came together in those few seconds. He had the instincts and the courage to do what was needed. One of Flo's comrades, Sergeant Andrew Mahoney, had joined in, too. Together they shoved the bomber again and again and they pushed him so hard, he fell to the ground onto his chest and then the bomb detonated. Ball bearings, debris, dust exploded everywhere. Flo was thrown some 15 or 20 feet and was knocked unconscious. Moments later, he woke up in the middle of the road in shock. His eardrum was blown out. His leg was broken and bleeding badly. Still, he realized that if the enemy launched a secondary attack, he'd be a sitting duck. When a comrade found him in the smoke, Flo had his pistol out, dragging his wounded body from the road.

That blast by the bridge claimed four American heroes, four heroes Flo wants us to remember today. One of his mentors, 24-year Army vet who always found time for Flo and any other soldier who wanted to talk, Command Sergeant Major Kevin Griffin. A West Pointer who loved hockey and became a role model to cadets and troops because he always cared more about other people than himself, Major Tom Kennedy. A popular Air Force leader known for smiling with his whole face, someone who always seemed to run into a friend wherever he went, Major David Gray. And finally, a USAID foreign service officer who had just volunteered for a second tour in Afghanistan, a man who moved to the United States from Egypt and reveled in everything American, whether it was Disneyland or chain restaurants or roadside pie, Ragaei Abdelfattah.

These four men believed in America. They dedicated their lives to our country. They died serving it. Their families, loving wives and children, parents and siblings, bear that sacrifice most of all.

So, while Ragaei's family could not be with us today, I'd ask three Gold Star families to please stand and accept our deepest thanks.


OBAMA: Today, we honor Flo because his actions prevented an even greater catastrophe. You see, by pushing the bomber away from the formation, the exPLOsion occurred farther from our forces and on the ground instead of in the open air. While Flo didn't know it at the time, that exPLOsion also caused a second unseen bomb to detonate before it was in place. Had both bombs gone off as planned, who knows how many could have been killed. Those are the lives Flo helped to save.

[11:20:09] We are honored many of them are here today. Brigadier General James Mingus (ph). Sergeant Andrew Mahoney, who was awarded a Silver Star for joining Flo in confronting the attacker. Sergeant First Class Brian Brink (ph), who was awarded the Bronze Star for valor for pulling Flo from the road. Sergeant Daniel Baldarama (ph,) a medic who helped save Flo's leg. Private First Class Benjamin Secord (ph) and Sergeant Eric Ochart (ph), who also served with distinction on that day.

Gentlemen, I'd ask you to please stand and accept the thanks of a grateful nation as well.


OBAMA: At Walter Reed, Flo began his next mission, the mission to recover. He suffered significant nerve damage, and almost half of the calf muscle in his left leg had been blown off, so the leg that had powered him around that track, the leg that moved so swiftly to counter the bomber, that leg had been through hell and back. Thanks to 33 surgeries and some of the finest medical treatment a person can ask for, Flo kept that leg. He's not running, but he's doing a lot of cross-fit. I would not challenge him to cross-fit.


He's putting some hurt on some rowing machines and some stair climbers. I think it is fair to say, he is fit. Today, Flo is medically retired, but like so many of his fellow

veterans of our 9/11 generation, Flo continues to serve. As I said yesterday at Arlington, that's what our veterans do. They are incredibly highly skilled, dynamic leaders, always looking to write that next chapter of service to America. For Flo, that means civilian job with the Department of Defense to help take care of our troops and keep our military strong. And every day that he is serving, he will be wearing a bracelet on his wrist, as he is today, a bracelet that bears the names of his brothers in arms who gave their lives that day.

The truth is, Flo says that day was the worst day of his life and that is the stark reality behind these Medal of Honor ceremonies. For all the valor we celebrate, all the courage that inspires us, these actions were demanded amid some of the most dreadful moments of war.

That's precisely why we honor heroes like Flo, because on his very worst day, he managed to summon his very best. That's the nature of courage. Not being unafraid, but confronting fear and danger, and performing in a selfless fashion. He showed his guts, he showed his training, how he would put it all on his line for his teammates. That's an American we can all be grateful for.

That's why we honor Captain Florent Groberg today.

May God bless all who serve and all who have given their lives for our country. We are free because of them.

May God bless their families and may God continue to bless the United States of America with heroes such as these.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE; The president of the United States of America authorized by act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded, in the name of Congress, the Medal of Honor to Captain Florent A. Groberg. Captain Florent A. Groberg distinguished himself through acts of gallantry above and beyond the call of security while serving as personal detachment commander, for Taskforce Mountain Warrior, 4th Infantry Brigade Team, 4th Infantry Division, during armed combat operations against an armed enemy in Afghanistan on August 8, 012.

[11:25:14] On that day, Captain Groberg was leading a dismounted movement consisting of several senior leaders to include two brigade commanders, two battalion commanders and two command sergeants major and an Afghanistan national army brigade commander. As they approached the governor's compound, Captain Groberg observed an individual walking close to the formation. While the individual made an abrupt turn towards the formation, he noticed a bulge under the individual's clothing. Selflessly placing himself in front of one of the brigade commanders, he rushed forward using his body to push the man away from the formation. Simultaneously, he ordered another member of the security to assist in removing the suspect. At this time, Captain Groberg confirmed the bulge was a suicide vest and, with disregard for his own life, Captain Groberg, with the assistance of the other member of the security detail, physically pushed the suicide bomber away from the formation. Upon falling, the suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest outside the perimeter of the formation, killing four members of the formation and wounding numerous others. The blast from the first suicide bomb caused the suicide vest of a previously unnoticed second suicide bomber to detonate prematurely with minimal impact on the formation.

Captain Groberg's immediate actions to push the first bomber away from them significantly minimized the attack of the formation, saving the lives of his comrades and several senior leaders. Captain Groberg's heroism and selflessness, above and beyond the call of duty on keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division and the United States Army.


UNIDENTIFIED MILITARY CHAPLIN: Let us pray. May the example of all the soldiers we remember today serve who inspire us to defeat all the enemies we face. May the acts of virtue we remember give us the courage to hold onto what is good, strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, and help those who suffer. May we the living bring honor to those who have perished so that others may live in peace. Grant your blessing, remain upon us and be with us always. Amen.

OBAMA: That concludes the formal portion of this ceremony. I need to take some pictures with the outstanding team members as well as the Gold Star families who are here today. As Flo reminds us, this medal, in his words, honors them as much as any honors that are bestowed upon him. And on Veterans Day week that's particularly appropriate.

I want to thank all of our service members who are here today, all who could not attend, and I hope you enjoy an outstanding reception. I hear the food is pretty good here.


Thank you very much, everybody.


Give Captain Groberg a big round of applause again.


BERMAN: One of the most poignant images you will see. Captain Florent Groberg, retired Army captain, choking back tears as he's awarded the military's highest distinction, the Medal of Honor, for tackling a would-be bomber in Afghanistan in 2012, saving the lives of countless people. This captain, this hero, insisted, asked the president to remember those who did die that day and also remember the others who acted so bravely that day.

These are always poignant ceremonies but this was particularly touching.

[11:30:11] BOLDUAN: I couldn't agree with you more. He has a remarkable story.