Navy SEAL Details Harrowing Mission to Rescue Hostage in Afghanistan
Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers is just looking forward to getting back to work.
On Monday, the 36-year-old SEAL will receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award, for his role in the daring 2012 hostage rescue of an American aid worker, Dr. Dilip Joseph, in Afghanistan. But don't expect him to rest on those laurels.
In a Feb. 25 interview with Military.com, Byers said he has no intention of drawing his 17-year military career to a close, and may choose to stay on in the special warfare community even after he reaches the 20-year retirement threshold in 2018.
"As long as I continue to enjoy my job, I'm going to continue doing it," he said. "I love my job now; it's the greatest job in the world."
Byers spoke publicly this month for the first time about the events that earned him the Medal of Honor. Until recently, even the language on his award citation had been withheld from public release.
A member of the Navy's elite SEAL Team Six, Byers was about two months into a deployment to eastern Afghanistan when his team received their rescue mission. Joseph, the medical director of the nonprofit organization Morning Star Development, had been kidnapped along with his driver and Afghan interpreter by Taliban-affiliated forces Dec. 5, 2012.
On Dec. 8, Byers' team was sent to a remote compound in the Qarghah'i district of Laghman province, where intelligence showed Joseph was being held. The team reached the building late at night, after a four-hour march to the mountainous location on primitive footpaths.
Going into the mission, Byers and his teammates knew the stakes were high.
"Success of the rescue operation relied upon surprise, speed, and aggressive action," Byers' summary of action states. "Trading personal security for speed of action was inherent to the success of this rescue mission. Each assaulter in the rescue force volunteered for this operation with full appreciation for the risks they were to undertake."
As the team got within 25 meters of the compound, a sentry at the door was alerted to their presence. The first member of the team, Petty Officer First Class Nicolas Checque, shot at the guard and ran towards the door of the compound. He fell wounded by an AK-47 round to the head as he charged into the building.
Byers was the second man inside the building, sprinting in on Checque's heels.
"There were some blankets hanging up; it wasn't like a typical door, so you couldn't just open the door and walk in," Byers recalled. "When I finally [made my way through the blankets], down my area of responsibility there was an enemy that I engaged with and then I saw another person that was moving across the floor. I didn't know whether or not that person was [the hostage] or if it was just an enemy coming to and trying to get some weapons, so by the time I got to him, I was able to get on top of him, straddle him, pin him down with my legs."
Locked in hand-to-hand combat with the unknown man underneath him, Byers managed to subdue him with one hand and use the other to adjust the focus of his night-vision goggles. Having done so, he saw that the man was one of the captors and engaged him with his weapon.
"At the same time, we're calling out, trying to find the location of the American hostage," Byers said.
Joseph called out, alerting the SEALs to his presence, three to five feet away from where Byers had grappled with the guard. Byers immediately tackled the captive American, using his own body and body armor to shield him from the fighting.
From this position, Byers noticed another man close by.
"It ended up being an enemy who had grenades and a weapon on him within arms' reach," Byers said. "And I was able to pin him to the wall by his throat until our team was able to come in and take care of that threat."
The entire raid was over in a matter of minutes.
Byers said he immediately turned his attention to Joseph, verifying his identity and making sure he was physically well and could walk. Other members of the team, he said, assessed the room, making sure all the explosives and grenades inside were safe and no pins had been pulled. Once this had been done, the team escorted Joseph out of the compound.
It was only then that Byers was able to turn his focus to his teammate, Checque, who was being triaged by a team medic. A former hospital corpsman and certified paramedic, Byers began to provide aid, helping to perform CPR on Checque during the 40-minute helicopter flight to Bagram Airfield. Checque would be declared deceased upon arrival.
"Nic paid the ultimate sacrifice. He died a warrior's death," Byers said. "So he's an American hero for giving his life to rescue another American."
Checque's family will be present on Monday to participate in the Medal of Honor ceremony, Byers said.
They will join friends, family and teammates of Byers' from four countries and three continents who will be at the White House to mark the occasion. Byers' wife and daughter will also be present.
Byers is the first living sailor to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. Two other SEALs have received the medal posthumously since Sept. 11, 2001: Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class Michael Monsoor, for heroic actions in Iraq in 2006; and Lt. Michael Murphy, for valor during Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan in 2005.
Amid the accolades that come with receiving the prestigious medal, Byers said he is most concerned about maintaining the integrity of his community of "silent professionals" and protecting their trust.
"Receiving this award, there's an immense amount of humility that comes with it. And there's a lot of honor that comes with it, because now I'm a representative of the Navy and in particular the Naval Special Warfare Community," he said. "It's my only hope and desire that at the end of the day I represent my community in a way that's appeasing to my brothers. Because they're the ones that mean the most to me."
Byers said he has no plans to write a memoir or seek a movie deal. And he doesn't want to publicly discuss any other missions in which he has participated, seeking to maintain the privacy of his community above all.
"The deed is all, not the glory," he said.
Still, after 11 overseas deployments and nine combat tours, during which he was wounded twice and received the prestigious Bronze Star five times, Byers said he plans to savor the days of respite as he prepares to receive the Medal of Honor.
He hopes he'll be able to share a beer and some Chicago deep-dish pizza from the legendary Lou Malnati's with President Barack Obama. Though Byers said he'll drink "Bud Light or anything that's free," his favorite brews are made by the California-based company Gordon Biersch.
"It's going to be nice to have a little bit of down time to enjoy spending with my family, my wife and my daughter, my friends and my teammates, celebrating life a little bit," he said.
--Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter on @HopeSeck.
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