Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
On Oct. 1, 2008, then-2nd Lt. Nicholas Eslinger, a platoon leader in Company C, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, acted on instinct when an enemy threw a grenade at him and his troops while they were conducting a dismounted patrol through Samarra, Iraq.
Eslinger swiftly moved toward the grenade, covering it with his body to protect his troops. When the grenade didn’t immediately detonate, he threw it back in the direction of the enemy and warned his troops to take cover just before the grenade went off.
As a result, Eslinger saved at least six soldiers from injury and death. Following the explosion, he continued to pursue the enemy combatant, which eventually led to the enemy’s capture and detention.
Eslinger received the Silver Star for his actions in early 2009. That was meant to be the end of it, but in 2017 his award was one of many that came under review as an act considered to be under recognized.
On Feb. 25, 2019, Gen. Mark Milley, U.S. Army chief of staff, signed the orders officially upgrading Eslinger’s award to the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army’s second highest award for battlefield valor and gallantry to the risk of one’s life.
Eslinger, currently a major attending the Command and General Staff Officer Course, was presented the award by Gen. Stephen Townsend, commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, during a ceremony May 3 in the Roberts Room of the Lewis and Clark Center.
“You can count on our Army to do the right thing sometimes after we exhausted every other possibility,” Townsend said. “Our opportunity came a couple years ago when the new secretary of Defense heard that maybe we have under-recognized the actions of our soldiers in this long war that we’ve been engaged in since Sept. 11, 2001.
“When I heard that Nick’s (award) had been approved for an upgrade to a Distinguished Service Cross, I immediately told the chief and vice, I want to do that one. I was there when he got the (Silver Star), I want to do this one.”
When writing his speech, Townsend said he read Eslinger’s remarks to the Corps of Cadets when he received the Nininger Award in 2009 from the West Point Association of Graduates. The award, which is named after Lt. Alexander Nininger, the first U.S. soldier awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II, is reserved for company-grade officers who display an act of heroism in combat.
Townsend quoted some of Eslinger’s remarks from that ceremony.
“‘Leading soldiers in combat has been the greatest experience of my life, and the greatest achievement was to bring all of them home safely … The mission must come first, but taking care of your soldiers is the first step toward accomplishing that mission,’” he quoted.
“Nick, your reaction to move toward the grenade that day rather than away from it was more than just your training. I think it was more instinct. I think that is hardwired into your DNA as a leader. I think it is hardwired in your thought to take care of your soldiers,” Townsend said. “I think you demonstrated by your actions that day that you were willing to die for them if necessary, to sacrifice all of your tomorrows for your soldiers. You are an inspiration to all of us, and I am honored to serve in the Army that produces such leaders.”
Eslinger said he was surprised when he learned the award was being upgraded.
“I originally thought that the Silver Star was too much recognition for just doing what my soldiers expected me to do as a platoon leader,” Eslinger said. “It was just action. There was no thought.”
Eslinger said although the attack happened 10 years ago, at times it feels much more recent.
“I remember the way the grenade felt in my hand. I remember the taste of dust after the explosion. I remember the way I felt when they told me there were zero casualties. That was a good feeling. I remember the look on (the enemy combatant’s) face when I was still alive and we captured him. That was a good feeling,” he said. “I also remember a question that my battalion commander asked me the night of the attack after I returned to Patrol Base Olson. In a private meeting, a few hours afterward, he looked at me and he said, ‘Nick, why did you move toward the grenade instead of away from it?’
“The reason I moved toward the grenade instead of away from it is the same reason I’ve served for the last 10 years,” Eslinger said. “It is the same reason I’ll continue to serve until the Army tells me I can’t serve. It is the same reason I cannot wait to get to my next team … as we endeavor to train our soldiers for the ground crucible of combat.”
For the ceremony, Eslinger was accompanied by his wife Calisse, their two eldest daughters 7-year-old Elle and 5-year-old Quinn, and his father Bruce Behnke.
“It is amazing what he did, and this is beyond recognizing something,” Behnke said. “He’s always been this way his whole life. He puts others first. Even in high school and junior high, when he was playing football, he would always take the hit for the team.
“He just keeps getting more amazing every day of his life,” he said.
Calisse Eslinger said she was blown away when she heard that her husband would be receiving the award.
“I’m beyond proud of him. It is well deserved,” she said. “I wasn’t shocked that he would do such a thing because this is what he was born to do. He is a true leader. He loves his job, so for him to be able to protect others, it was instinct for him.”