In the darkness of a single-room building in Afghanistan, Navy Senior Chief Edward C. Byers Jr. had little time to react: A fellow Navy SEAL had just been shot in the head during a hostage rescue mission, and it wasn’t clear who else in the room wanted to kill the American team.
Byers burst in anyway, shooting a Taliban fighter who had an automatic rifle aimed at him. Another man scrambled to the corner of the room where another rifle was stored, so Byers tackled him and then tried to adjust his night-vision goggles to see whether he was the American hostage. The hostage, lying five feet away, called out in English, so Byers killed the insurgent he was straddling and then hurled himself on top of the hostage to protect him from gunfire. At the same time, Byers pinned another enemy fighter to the wall with a hand to the throat until another SEAL shot the militant.
Byers, 36, received the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony Monday for his actions on Dec. 8-9, 2012. The ceremony forced him to do something else difficult for someone in his line of work: Step out of the shadows and in front of news cameras as he receives the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.
Byers is believed to be the first service member to ever receive the Medal of Honor for actions while serving with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, commonly known as SEAL Team 6. Defense officials declined to confirm that, but said that Byers is the first living SEAL to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. U.S. officials have previously acknowledged that the 2012 raid was carried out by SEAL Team 6.
“I’ve lived my entire career a very private life,” Byers said Friday in an interview at the Pentagon. “We don’t talk about what we do, and this honor carries with it some obligations that I need to carry out. You know, you follow those through. But, I plan to continue doing my job as normal and to continue being a SEAL. It’s something I love and grew up wanting to be.”
The SEALs successfully extracted the hostage, Dilip Joseph, a doctor, from the clutches of the Taliban, but the first SEAL through the doorway ahead of Byers, Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas D. Checque, 28, was killed. Checque posthumously received the Navy Cross, one step down from the Medal of Honor, for his heroism in the mission, Navy officials said. That has not previously been reported, and is not listed on the Defense Department’s online listing of valor recipients. As of Monday afternoon, the Navy had not released an award citation for Checque.
President Obama said during the ceremony Monday that many details about the mission remain classified, including the identities of some of the other SEALs who were there. That “is as it should be,” the president said, adding that the secrecy saves lives.
“But the Medal of Honor is our nation’s highest military decoration,” Obama said. “And today’s ceremony is truly unique — a rare opportunity for the American people to get a glimpse of a special breed of warrior that so often serves in the shadows. We’re a nation of more than 300 million Americans. Of these, less than one percent wear the uniform of our armed forces. Of these, just a small fraction serve in our Special Operations forces. Among those who train to become a SEAL, only a select few emerge and earn the right to wear that golden Trident.”
Byers, a blue-eyed, burly man, grew up in Grand Rapids, Ohio, a small town southwest of Toledo. He visited the Pentagon with his wife, Madison, and 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, last week clean-shaven and in a khaki uniform, a dramatic departure from the camouflage and thick beard he has worn in combat. His father served in the Navy during World War II, and the younger Byers decided at an early age to join the military and pursue becoming a SEAL, he said.
“I liked everything about what they represented, or what I thought they represented,” Byers said. “The difficult missions they take on, the secrecy around what they do, the Special Operations aspect, the cool gear, the good equipment.”
Byers enlisted in 1998 after graduating from high school, initially becoming a Navy corpsman and serving as a medic. He first served at what is now known the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, a hospital in Chicago run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and as corpsman with the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
He entered the famous Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school in San Diego, better known as BUD/S, in 2002 a few months after U.S. military operations in Afghanistan began and while the Pentagon was preparing to invade Iraq the following year. He was assigned to his first operational SEAL team in May 2004, and has remained assigned to SEAL teams based in Little Creek, Va., according to biographical information released by the Navy. He has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Specifics about Byers’s time overseas are scant, but he has earned two Purple Hearts for being wounded in combat and five Bronze Stars with V device, a lower-level but still prestigious award that recognizes heroism. A Roman Catholic, he said he has drawn strength for years from praying to St. Michael the Archangel, who in the Book of Revelation led an army in heaven against evil forces.
“My entire career in combat operations, I’ve always wore a St. Michael the Archangel patch on my back,” he said. “And I got that off of a guy in my first Iraq tour. That patch is really special to me because every single mission I’ve ever done, I’ve always said a prayer to St. Michael to protect and watch over us, and I think those prayers are a good aspect and a big aspect of what helps sustain me through all those times away from home, and away from my wife, and away from my daughter and friends and family.”
On the night of the hostage rescue, Byers’s team was called upon by Marine Gen. John Allen, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The U.S. military had gathered intelligence on where Joseph, who had been working for an aid organization, was being held, but commanders were concerned that if they did not react quickly, the doctor would be moved to a new hideout or killed. He was kidnapped three days earlier along with his interpreter and driver.
Joseph was held captive in the Qarghayi district of Laghman province, an area east of Kabul near the Pakistani border. The SEALs maneuvered on foot for about four hours over trails and mountainous terrain, and arrived at the Taliban hideout after midnight.
Checque, the point man in the SEAL unit, opened fire on a Taliban guard who spotted the Americans, and then chased him inside through six layers of blankets that served as a door and kept the cold out. Byers, who followed Checque in, said shielding the doctor from the gunfire was instinctual.
“We’re wearing body armor, so I want to protect him from any other dangers that are in the room,” Byers said. “When we do a mission like this, we accept more risk to ourselves in order to bring him back, to bring back another American.”
Byers said that Checque was both a teammate and friend, and tough as nails. He loved cars and motorcycles, outdoor sports and guns.
“I was lucky. I made it out with very few scratches, and Nic Checque didn’t,” the SEAL said. “He made the ultimate sacrifice. But there have been a lot of our brothers who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and they died like warriors die. I would like to think he would do that all over again. Very few people can say they died doing something they love, and he’ll forever be remembered in the pages of history as being a truly great hero.”
Byers said he has not spoken to Joseph since 2012. The doctor wrote a book, “Kidnapped by the Taliban: A Story of Terror, Hope and Rescue by SEAL Team 6,” that was released in 2014 and detailed his captivity and rescue by the SEALs. He told The Washington Post early this month when Byers’s award was announced that he was taken aback by Byers’s willingness to risk his own life. In his book, Joseph wrote that he was given a coin by the SEALs with the Roman numeral “VI” on it — for SEAL Team 6.
Joseph also wrote that he was allowed to attend a “ramp ceremony” at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in which Checque’s remains were loaded on a C-17 cargo plane to be sent back to the United States. The doctor spoke to about 30 SEALs on the plane afterward, and wrote in his book that his eyes welled with tears as he thanked them.
“U.S. Navy SEALs have a reputation as the toughest people on the planet, one they have rightly earned from their training and from the skill they’ve demonstrated in mission after mission,” Joseph wrote. “But as I observed the faces of the men gathered around me, I saw more than a few eyes, like mine, filling up. A few of the SEALs had tears running down their cheeks.”
The other SEALs to earn the Medal of Honor are Joseph “Bob” Kerrey, Thomas Norris, Michael Thornton, Michael Murphy and Michael Monsoor. Kerry, Norris and Thornton all earned theirs for actions in Vietnam, while Murphy received his posthumously for heroism in eastern Afghanistan in 2005 and Monsoor was recognized posthumously for valor in 2006 in Ramadi, Iraq.
Asked what he has done since 2012, Byers only would say that it is “whatever the nation has asked.” He plans to stay in the military as long as he loves his job, and said he wants to make others who have earned the Navy SEAL insignia, the Trident, proud.
“That’s the most important thing: How our brothers in the community view us,” he said. “That’s what keeps us going. You earn your Trident every day, and you’re only as good as that day. You don’t rest on what you did in the past. You keep driving forward.”
This story was originally published Sunday, Feb. 28, and updated with additional reporting after Monday’s ceremony.