The fourth annual Alexander R. Nininger Award for Valor at Arms was presented to First Lieutenant Nicholas M. Eslinger ’07 Infantry, of Oakley, CA, during a dinner at Washington Hall following a reception earlier at Herbert Hall.
While a platoon leader in Company C, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) on 1 October 2008, then-2nd Lieutenant Eslinger was on a dismounted patrol after sunset in Samarra, Iraq, when a terrorist behind a courtyard wall threw a hand grenade among him and his men. Without hesitation, LT Eslinger moved to the grenade, shielding the rest of his men from the imminent explosion with his own body, and stopped it from rolling closer to his platoon sergeant, radio operator, interpreter and two other platoon members. When the grenade did not immediately explode, he then threw it back towards its source and yelled for his men to take cover. It detonated in midair. By his quick and selfless action, LT Eslinger saved at least six soldiers from possible serious injury or death.
The Nininger Award is named in honor of LT Alexander “Sandy” Nininger ‘41, the first member of the Army to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II. On 12 January 1942, Nininger voluntarily attached himself to another company in his Philippine Scouts regiment that was under heavy attack by Japanese forces near Abucay, Bataan, in the Philippines. Wounded several times, he continued to advance in a counterattack and destroy enemy positions until he was killed. Mr. and Mrs. Doug Kenna ’45 have committed to supporting the award annually and insuring its endowment in perpetuity.
General and Mrs. Hagenbeck, General Stroup, General and Mrs. Linnington, General and Mrs. Finnegan, Mr. Anderson, Mr. and Mrs. Kenna, Colonel McClure, other distinguished guests, and, especially, the corps of cadets.
It is a great privilege to be here this evening to receive the Nininger award. I am truly honored to represent all West Point graduates who have led soldiers in combat including my classmates who made the ultimate sacrifice: Daniel Hyde, Michael Girdano and Tyler Parten. At the outset, I must tell you I accept this award on behalf of my 36 man rifle platoon in Iraq. I’ve missed them every day since my reassignment in June.
I am truly humbled to be among you all . . . . Four thousand future fellow officers and, quite possibly, two or three of my future platoon leaders. Thank you for honoring me with your presence tonight and for your service to our country. Your decision to attend West Point in a time of war attests to your character and commitment to America.
West Point was not selected as America’s best college because of its past, but because of its present. Our alma mater is a great national institution. But West Point is, above all, about your commitment to serve more than yourselves.
Just two years ago I was sitting where you are. Like you, I had a lot to do, but I did listen intently to Major Ryan Worthan, the first Nininger award recipient, knowing his story might help me. And it did.
Tonight, I promise to be brief, and I hope to say something that will help you understand the value of your training here at west point.
Our generation is in a fight against a radical and dangerous enemy. The fight will not end soon, but because America is the strongest country on earth, the fight will end on our terms.
Until then, blood will be shed, and lives will be lost. But, how much blood and how many lives, is something each of you will directly affect as platoon leaders.
Like my first unit, yours very well might be forward deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of you will report in and immediately take command of a platoon routinely engaged in combat operations.
On day 1 you must be prepared to lead your platoon in combat. Rest assured your training here at West Point and your initial officer training will prepare you for that challenge. Leading soldiers in combat has been the greatest experience of my life, and the greatest achievement was to bring all of them home safely. I am excited that I will soon have the opportunity to lead my ranger platoon in combat and I sincerely hope your experiences will be as rewarding as mine.
Tonight, I would like to say a word about your first days as a platoon leader and address two concerns that used to keep me up late at night—probably you, too. One, what are you going to say to your platoon the first time you stand in front of them? And two, how are you going to react and lead your platoon when you are under fire for the first time? I will share the advice given to me when I was a cadet by my upper-class mentor, Chris Blackburn, class of 2006.
Before you leave the academy, learn as much as you possibly can from each other. Learn by observing. Observe your cadet chain of command, your TACS, your instructors, your coaches, your sponsors and mentors. Emulate what they do well, but also learn from their mistakes.
Above all, learn to anticipate and react to critical moments: moments when a game, a training patrol, a presentation, or an argument is in the balance. Combat leadership is a lot about knowing yourself in times of stress. Knowing what excites you, what confuses you, and what scares you is the first step to preventing failure. We learn those things by intentionally placing ourselves outside of our comfort zone–stepping up when others are reluctant to do so, asking questions when you are afraid everyone else already knows the answer, and taking calculated risks. Learn from each other, and learn about yourself.
Whether you are a plebe in charge of the laundry detail, a squad leader, a cadet battalion commander, a trip section CIC, or a spirit mission leader, challenge yourself to do your best. The more you learn before graduation, the more successful you will be after graduation.
The most nervous I’ve ever been was the day I stood in front of my platoon for the first time. I had it all planned out, knew what I wanted to say, and really wanted to make a good first impression. But about ten minutes before the meeting, I realized what I wanted to say really didn’t make sense for the situation. The platoon had just returned from a mission. They were tired. They were still shaken up over the loss of SFC Chevalier—a platoon sergeant who had been killed two days prior. So, I postponed the meeting until I found the right words to say. If you find yourself in a similar situation, here’s my advice.
Before you stand in front of your platoon for the first time, pull your squad leaders and platoon sergeant aside. Ask them what they think the platoon needs to hear from you as their new platoon leader—not what they probably want to hear, but what they absolutely need to hear from you. They will tell you what the soldiers need to know. Listen to your NCOs’, and take their advice. They want you to succeed. When you call your platoon together to introduce yourself, hit the points your NCO’s suggested, and any other points you believe are important.
Doing this will put your platoon at ease, because they will have heard what they needed to hear from you. Also, you will have laid the foundation for trust with your NCO leadership by including them in your first decision. There is nothing more important than trust within a platoon, and there is no better way to earn trust as a leader than to show your subordinates you respect them and value their input.
That trust became critical during my first direct contact with the enemy as a platoon leader. It was October 1st, 2008 at about 2030 hours. It had been dark for over an hour. I was leading our 12 man dismounted element in a southeastern neighborhood of Samarra named Jiberia two. We were in an urban environment—with multi-story buildings and narrow alleyways. We had just come to a halt at our second checkpoint, when we were engaged by an individual with a grenade. At the time, SPC Coursen, my RTO, was directly by my side sending a spot report back to base. 5 meters ahead, my saw gunner, SPC Crowell, was on a knee pulling security facing the twelve o’clock position. Across from me, were my squad leader, SSG Heath, my interpreter, Alex, and my rifleman, PVT Benjamin. They were about to enter a courtyard when the enemy grenade was thrown from behind an 8 foot high wall 20 meters off to my left. All that I initially saw was a hand. The grenade then landed between SPC Crowell and me and started rolling across the alleyway. I was moving before it hit the ground, and was able to dive for it and stop its advance toward my platoon. Somehow, someway, I threw the grenade back. The grenade exploded in mid-air, but fortunately, none of my men were wounded or killed.
I will say this: there was no single training event at camp Buckner, or DMI leadership conference, or motivational speech in rob-aud that made me decide to move toward the grenade, rather than away from it. It was pure instinct to take care of my soldiers that made me do it. There was no time for thought or a decision matrix, just visual focus and instinctive reaction – but thank God for slow time fuses.
However, I do believe that developing such instincts starts here at West Point. As cadets, we learn what it means to “take care of soldiers.” That fact is repeated often, but it is our responsibility to take that knowledge, internalize it, put it into practice, and develop a natural instinct for it. Believe me, that instinct is becoming second nature to you now, and it will guide every decision you make. The mission must come first, but taking care of your soldiers is the first step towards accomplishing the mission.
I close now with a challenge to all of you: as cadets, you are exposed to many leadership opportunities and styles. Every hour of every day is an opportunity to show your subordinates that you care. In the weeks ahead, pay close attention to each other. You will notice a wide variety of leadership styles.
Choose someone you think you can learn from, and let them know you appreciate their leadership style. Similarly, if you are approached for guidance or advice, take the time to show you care and prove to them they made the right choice.
West Point will prepare you for success, but you must take advantage of the opportunities. You won’t know which experience will be critical. It might be a single event or a combination of experiences. So enjoy yourself, but learn to recognize those critical moments.
Again, I am truly honored to receive this award from the Association of Graduates here with the corps and academy leadership. God bless all of you, God bless West Point, and God Bless America. Thank you.