As banks of cameras focused on Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Ed Byers Jr., the strangeness of the moment was not lost on President Barack Obama.
"This is not Edward Byers' idea of a good time," Obama said, indicating the Navy SEAL standing confidently to his right. "He does not seek the spotlight; in fact, he shuns it."
But today, Obama continued, it was right for the nation to honor publicly an act of heroism deserving of the nation's highest award for combat valor.
"Today's ceremony is a truly unique, rare opportunity for the American people to get a glimpse of a special breed of warrior that serves in the shadows," the president said.
Byers, 36, became the first living sailor since the Vietnam War to receive the Medal of Honor in a ceremony Monday morning. Two other SEALs, Lt. Michael Murphy and Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor, received the Medal of Honor posthumously for heroism in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively.
In all, six SEALs including Byers have received the medal; two of them, Retired Lt. Thomas Rolland Norris and Retired Lt. Michael Edwin Thornton, were present for the ceremony. In 1980, Thornton became the founding member of SEAL Team Six, the elite group of special operators to which Byers also belonged.
The presence of the two Navy legends underscored the historical nature of the morning's ceremony, which was attended by U.S. Special Operations Command Commander Army Gen. Joseph Votel; Rear Adm. Brian Losey, head of the Navy Special Warfare community; and other U.S. special operations leaders. Many unnamed attendees of the ceremony wore the distinctive SEAL trident on their uniform lapels.
"This may be the largest gathering of special operations in the history of the White House," Obama said.
Byers, a native of Grand Rapids, Ohio, was part of a SEAL Team Six rescue mission on Dec. 8 and 9, 2012, to recover American aid worker Dr. Dilip Joseph after he was taken hostage by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Obama recounted Joseph's terrifying capture on Dec. 5, 2012, and the days he had spent in captivity, unsure if he would make it out alive.
"His captors told [Joseph], 'the Americans are not coming for you,' " Obama said. "They were wrong ... we sent some thunder and some lightning."
The mission started with a four-hour trek over mountainous terrain and primitive roads to where intelligence indicated Joseph was being held, in a compound in the Qarghah'i district of Laghman province.
Another member of the SEAL team, Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque, was the first into the compound , charging bravely to the entrance after a gate sentry was alerted to the presence of the team. He fell wounded from an AK-47 round to the head.
According to his summary of action, Byers was the second into the compound, sprinting in on Checque's heels. In the darkness, Byers first pulled down six layers of blankets that served as a primitive door, then began taking out enemy guards one by one. He took down one man, then jumped on another, grappling with him physically on the ground until he could adjust his night-vision goggles and identify him as the enemy.
After that threat was dispatched, Byers and his teammates began calling out for Joseph to determine his location. When the American doctor responded, Byers jumped on top of him, using his own body and body armor to protect the hostage. As he protected Joseph, Byers saw another enemy fighter armed with grenades. He managed to pin the man to the wall by his throat with one hand, allowing other members of his team to engage him.
After attending to Joseph and ensuring no more threats remained in the room, Byers turned his attention to Checque, using his background as a certified paramedic and former hospital corpsman to render aid and CPR during the wounded SEAL's flight to Bagram Air Base.
Tragically, Checque would not survive his wounds.
Obama acknowledged Checque's sacrifice, saying the SEAL had posthumously received the Navy Cross for his bravery during this final mission.
Today we salute [Petty Officer 1st Class] Nicolas Checque," he said. "... The enduring love of Nic's family and all who admire him remind us of the immense sacrifices of our remarkable Gold Star families."
Byers was also joined by his wife, Madison, and 11-year-old daughter, Hannah.
"Their support has been unwavering; they have always stood by my side," he said. "They have endured long hardships, times apart. They are the two most important women in my life, and I love them very much."
He also paid tribute to his teammates still serving in the shadows, saying he would not be present to receive an award if it had not been for his team.
He honored Checque, his fallen brother, saying the medal was truly his.
"He lived his life as a warrior, he carried out countless missions selflessly and fearlessly," Byers said. "He paid the ultimate sacrifice that day, so I want to personally thank his family ... thoughts of Nic and other brothers who have paid the ultimate sacrifice I believe is what will carry me through bearing the responsibilities that come with this honor."
Byers, the son of a Navy veteran, said he grew up dressing in camouflage and dreaming of being a Navy SEAL. He told Military.com that he still loves his job and may seek to continue on active duty even past his career's 20-year mark in 2018.
This choice puts him in rare company: Only one other Medal of Honor recipient, Army Maj. Will Swenson, remains on active duty. Byers acknowledged that it might not be easy to return to the ranks of the silent professionals after receiving the prestigious medal, but said he would address challenges as they came.
"Every aspect of life has its challenges. So I'm sure there will be some challenges," Byers told Military.com last week. "But I'll take those challenges, figure out what the problems are, solve them, and ... continue doing what [I've] always done."
|Featured Special Operations Special Forces Navy SEALs Medal of Honor Medals President Barack Obama Hope Seck|