In the darkness of a single-room building in Afghanistan, Navy Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator 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, 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, 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, the nation’s highest award for valor in combat, in a White House ceremony Monday for his actions on Dec. 8, 2012.
He is believed to be the first living service member ever to receive the medal for actions while serving in the highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command. Defense officials declined to confirm that, but said Byers is the first living SEAL to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.
“I’ve lived my entire career a very private life,” Byers said. “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 for his heroism in the mission, Navy officials said.
Specifics about Byers’ 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.