“I saw a hand come up over the wall and toss a grenade, which landed about six to eight feet away and rolled toward my soldiers,” said Eslinger, who at the time was a first lieutenant and platoon leader with the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Without hesitation, Eslinger dove on the grenade, pinning it between his chest and the ground. He grabbed it with his hand as he rolled over, came to his knees, and threw it back over the wall a second before it blew up.
“There was no thought involved,” Eslinger said by phone this week. “It was over before I knew what had happened.”
Then again, it wasn’t quite over, at least not for Eslinger. Word of what he had done spread, and on March 16 he was awarded the Silver Star, the country’s third-highest award for gallantry, by Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey, Jr.
“It’s a weird thing to be called a hero,” Eslinger said, adding that he had been raised to be “thankful and humble” and not give a lot of thought to his own exploits. “It was a big surprise that such a high-ranking officer (Casey) would take time out of his busy schedule,” Eslinger said.
And what did the Army’s top commander have to say? Eslinger chuckled.
“I’m not sure you can use this in the paper, but he said, ‘That took a lot of balls,’” Eslinger said. “He said, ‘You have more courage than most of the soldiers I know.’ I’m very honored.”
Eslinger, 25, graduated from Freedom in 2002, and from West Point Military Academy (which he attended on a scholarship) in 2007. While in high school, he was a standout on the football and golf teams, and he credited his training as a Little League shortstop with giving him the dexterity to field and dispatch that potentially deadly grounder.
Eslinger said the realization of what he had done took some time to sink in.
“It really came later that night, while I was talking with my platoon sergeant,” he said. “It hit me that ‘I could have died tonight; my soldiers could have died tonight.’” His platoon commander, in order to make sure Eslinger didn’t dwell on the episode and allow it to affect his future actions, put him right back to work.
“Eight hours later I was back out on patrol” looking for the terrorist who had thrown the grenade, Eslinger said. The man hadn’t stuck around (“I would love to have seen his face” when the grenade sailed back over the wall, Eslinger said) but he didn’t run far enough away, either. He was identified and arrested the next day.
It took even longer for his mother, Donna Behnke, to get a feel for what her son had done, but that was only because Eslinger didn’t tell her about it right away.
“I didn’t find out about it until our congressman called to arrange for an interview,” said Behnke, who, along with Eslinger’s father Bruce, is now a resident of Texas. “He never mentioned it.”
Behnke said Eslinger had been a high achiever all his life. In addition to athletics, he served as a peer counselor at Freedom. “He’s always been service-oriented; he liked to serve other people,” she said. “I would rather he not have jumped on a grenade, but I’m very proud to be his mom. I worry a little bit more now, but I do walk on air sometimes.”
Behnke said Eslinger is currently at Ft. Benning, Ga., where he’s training as a member of the 75th Rangers. Moving to the elite special forces is just the next step in a career he credits his parents with making possible.
“I’d like to thank my parents for all the support they’ve given me as I chase my dreams,” he said. “I feel very honored to receive the Silver Star and all the attention I’ve received. My soldiers challenge me every day, hold me to their standards, and trust me as their leader. Being a platoon commander is the best job in the whole world.”