After more than four hours of moving across the rocky, hill-studded terrain of eastern Afghanistan, Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward C. Byers and other commandos from the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six were within 100 feet of their objective: an American aid worker held hostage by the Taliban.
It was Dec. 8, 2012, and three days earlier, a doctor, Dilip Joseph, and his interpreter and his driver had been captured by the Taliban while returning from a medical clinic east of Kabul. Upon his abduction, he was moved to a single-room hut in Laghman province, not far from where he had been taken. According to an unclassified summary of action provided by Navy officials, there was evidence that as early as the next day Joseph might be moved.
In his book, “Kidnapped by the Taliban: A Story of Terror, Hope and Rescue by SEAL Team Six,” Joseph said he awoke that night with a runny nose and to the sound of a dog barking and bleating sheep. Minutes later his captors were dead, and Byers was helping him to a helicopter.
“The whole operation lasted two minutes,” Joseph said in a recent phone interview. “The only time we had to wait was for the helicopter to pick us up.”
The SEALs were yards away from the compound when one of the Taliban spotted the commandos. The point man, Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas D. Checque, fired, missed and rushed the building — probably hoping to keep the element of surprise before the rest of Joseph’s captors could be alerted.
The door of the compound was made up of six heavy blankets, a common method for Afghans to insulate their mud-walled houses in the winter. As Checque rushed in, Byers followed, pushing through the blankets behind his comrade. Once inside, Checque was immediately hit by enemy rifle fire. With his teammate down, Byers entered the room and confronted a man pointing a Kalashnikov at him. Now locked in hand-to-hand combat, Byers saw another man dart across the room. Unsure about who was friend or foe, Byers shifted his attention to the new threat, tackling him to the ground while adjusting his night-vision goggles to ensure that the green blur he had tackled wasn’t Joseph himself.
As Byers wrestled the two Taliban, the rest of his team filled in behind him, calling out for Joseph to identify himself. According to the summary of action, Byers heard an English voice off to his right and instantly threw himself on top of Joseph to shield him from the ensuing gun battle. While lying on top of the doctor, Byers managed to grab another Taliban fighter by the throat and pin him to the adjacent wall long enough for another SEAL to fatally shoot him.
As Byers lay atop Joseph, the rest of the SEALs killed the remaining captors. In Joseph’s book, the doctor describes the initial chaos as the SEALs entered the room, calling for Joseph to identify himself and for the five Taliban to put their hands in the air. With Byers on top of him, he recalled, the SEAL asked whether he had been abused and properly fed, as the room erupted into a firefight.
“You’re going to be okay,” Joseph recounted Byers as saying, though at the time he had no idea who was talking to him. “We’re going to get you out of here.”
After the team moved Joseph to the landing zone, Byers, a certified paramedic and a graduate of the Army’s 18 Delta Special Forces medical course, began combat life support on his wounded teammate. Byers and his team provided CPR for the 40-minute flight back to Bagram Airfield where Checque, 28, was pronounced dead.
For his actions that night Byers will receive the nation’s highest honor for combat valor, the Medal of Honor, in a White House ceremony at the end of the month. Byers will be the eleventh living recipient of the award to come out of the war in Afghanistan.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.