If he does return, Byers would likely become the first Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War to return to the battlefield. A review of online records of the several hundred recipients from Vietnam found less than half a dozen who saw further combat after receiving the Medal of Honor.
It is not a lack of will or courage that has historically kept Medal of Honor recipients off the battlefield, but rather injuries and, just as often, bureaucratic delays.
By definition, actions worthy of the Medal of Honor must come at grave risk of death or injury. Nine of the 20 men awarded the Medal since Vietnam died earning it — four in Iraq, three in Afghanistan, and two during the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. Three more — Army Capt. Florent Groberg, Marine Cpl. William “Kyle” Carpenter and Army Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry — suffered significant injuries shielding comrades from grenade and suicide bomber explosions. All eventually left military life without deploying again.
The approval process for the Medal of Honor can also be incredibly long. Witnesses must be found and re-interviewed by investigators. Then the nomination moves up a line of approvals that, according to a government flow chart illustrating the process, covers 14 steps, from a soldier’s battlefield commander to the president. Approval for Byers’ award took more than three years, just below the average for reviews under President Obama.
By the time the presidential ceremony occurs, many people have already moved on to another phase of their lives — often outside the military.
Army Sgt. Kyle White waited seven years between the day his unit was ambushed in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province and his award. During that time, White left the military, used his GI Bill for college and was working as an investment banker in Charlotte, NC when President Obama approved his award.
In fact, all 10 living Medal of Honor recipients prior to Byers left the military before or soon after their awards were approved.
Groberg now has a civilian job at the Pentagon. Carpenter enrolled at the University of South Carolina, where he chronicles his life as a college student and motivational speaker on his Twitter and Instagram accounts under the handle “ChiksDigScars.”
Army Maj. William Swenson, who earned the Medal of Honor in 2013, left the Army in 2011 but rejoined in 2014. A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that Swenson is now attached to U.S. Army South, whose troops operate in South and Central America, far from the war zones in the Middle East.
And there’s another factor that can keep an award recipient from returning to the battlefield: earning the Medal of Honor brings new demands and pressures.
In the coming weeks, Byers will likely be asked to participate in a publicity tour, endlessly recounting his actions to media. He may face particular pressure to aid recruiting efforts for both the Navy and the SEALs, neither of which have had a living Medal of Honor recipient since Vietnam. Longer term, Byers will have to sift through countless requests to lend his name to various causes and events.
Groberg, who was awarded the Medal last November, said he’s already talked to Byers about what he can expect.
“I told him, ‘Remain true to yourself. Don’t change who you are because of the medal,’” said Groberg, “You have a voice and a platform. If there’s something you don’t want to be associated with, don’t do it.”
“Some people might be prone to get a big head, thinking ‘I’m famous’ or whatever it is,” he added. “But I have no doubt [Byers] will remain as humble as he is. He’s a true professional and he’s been doing his job for a long time.”
Groberg said he was on an Army-orchestrated media tour for about six weeks after receiving the Medal. He noted that Byers has used his first wave of interviews to emphasize the heroics of another SEAL killed alongside him in 2012, Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque.
“He’s handling it perfectly, talking about his guys and his teammate,” said Groberg. “He went from one extreme to the next, from this secret lifestyle to being spotlighted in front of millions. I can see how it would be a real liability for [an active duty member].”
Living Medal of Honor recipients are extraordinarily rare—there are only 80 now—and so they are in high demand for what they symbolize, said Doug Sterner, a longtime Medal of Honor historian who now curates the Military Times’ online Hall of Valor database.
“There are plenty of young men fully capable of doing what Chief Byers did with his team,” said Sterner. “None of them are capable of being who he is on the national scene. He didn’t go out looking for it, but he has become a unique asset to our country and to future generations.”
But returning to duty may run in Seal Team 6’s DNA. A Medal of Honor recipient was among the unit’s founding members. Navy Lt. Michael Thornton was awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam after fighting off an ambush and swimming for two hours while dragging a fellow SEAL to a mid-ocean rendezvous.
It used to be quite common for Medal of Honor recipients to return to the front lines. During World War II, for instance, approval times were shorter and so people frequently went back to combat roles. The best example during that era, said the historian Sterner, was Marine Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, who was awarded the Medal for manning a machine-gun post during fierce fighting on Guadalcanal.
“He went back to the U.S. and got tired of the dog and pony shows and wanted to be back with his Marines,” said Sterner.
Rejoining the fleet for the invasion of Iwo Jima, Basilone was killed after single-handedly capturing a fortified Japanese bunker. For those actions, he received the Navy Cross, which is second only to the Medal of Honor.
Prior to World War I, the Medal of Honor was the U.S.’s only award for combat bravery and was given out so commonly that 19 men were awarded it twice. The most famous among them was probably Marine Corps legend Dan Daly.
Daly earned his first award fighting in China in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and a second in Haiti in 1915. He nearly got a third in World War I Belleau Wood, where, according to Marine Corps legend, he challenged his fellow Marines by yelling, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” He survived—and earned a Navy Cross.