Monday's Medal of Honor ceremony highlighted the heroism of Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers, but it also brought new attention to the valor displayed by a fellow SEAL who sacrificed his life in the same hostage rescue mission that earned Byers the Medal of Honor.
During remarks at Byers' medal presentation, President Barack Obama revealed that Petty Officer First Class Nicolas Checque, 28, had been posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his role in the mission, which took place late in the evening Dec. 8, 2012.
The revelation sheds light on a whole category of elite awards the public never hears about -- those given to special operators, particularly SEALs, who serve in secrecy.
Checque was the first member of the SEAL team to charge into the compound in Afghanistan where American aid worker Dr. Dilip Joseph was being held. Moments into the raid, he fell mortally wounded from an AK-47 round to the head.
Both Obama and Byers honored Checque, whose family members were in attendance at the ceremony.
Today we salute [Petty Officer 1st Class] Nicolas Checque," Obama 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."
In remarks following the ceremony, Byers said the medal rightfully belonged to his "teammate, friend and brother," referring to Checque.
"I believe our nation owes him a debt of gratitude," Byers said. "He lived his life as a warrior; he carried out countless missions selflessly and fearlessly."
But no public record of Checque's award exists.
On Monday, Navy Special Warfare Command spokeswoman Lt. Beth Teach said a decision had not been made yet on whether to release the fallen SEAL's medal citation, even though Checque's actions and the context of the mission have now been made public.
For the elite Navy SEALs, Checque's may be one of more than half a dozen Navy Crosses that have never been publicly documented. According to the Defense Department's own awards database, eight sailors have received the Navy Cross since Sept. 11, 2001, including seven for actions in Afghanistan and one for heroism in Iraq.
But Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran who maintains Hall of Valor, the largest online military awards database, in partnership with Military Times, said he believes up to nine sailors have quietly been awarded the Navy Cross since the start of the "war on terror." Even more shockingly, Sterner said he has cause to believe some eighty Silver Stars have been awarded to sailors on a classified basis since the 9/11 attacks.
"The classification of awards is relatively unique to the war on terrorism," he told Military.com. "And that is largely because of the move toward special ops doing a significant amount of that type of activity."
By contrast, Sterner said he has obtained medal citations for all 38 Navy Crosses awarded to Marines since 2001, except for one awarded to an unnamed Marine member of Delta Force for bravery during the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
While the secrecy is intended to protect the identities of special operators and the details of classified missions, Sterner said he fears that the large number of awards given in secrecy may lead to future confusion and accusations of stolen valor, the term for those who claim military awards they don't deserve.
"We've got some heroes out there who legitimately wear Silver Stars and Navy Crosses," he said, "and there's no documentation [of the awards]."--Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.