Medal of Honor recipient shuns spotlight
By Tom Vanden Brook | USA Today | Published: February 27, 2016
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Imagine yourself in the most dangerous, dire circumstance — held hostage, say, by the Taliban. You’d want a guy just like Edward Byers looking for you.
No nonsense, humble, focused, Byers on Monday will receive the military’s highest award – the Medal of Honor – for helping rescue an American doctor in Afghanistan in 2012.
He’ll shake President Obama’s hand and acknowledge the loss of a treasured colleague. Later, Senior Chief Byers — the sixth Navy SEAL to receive the award and the first living one since 1998 — will gladly slip back into the shadows, and the exquisitely dangerous, secretive work that has become his life’s calling.
“As you get older, of course your body starts to break down a little bit,” Byers, 36, told USA TODAY in an interview at the Pentagon. “Still fit enough to keep going.”
No doubt about that. Byers, blue-eyed, baby-faced and bearing a black silicone wedding band (easy to wear during workouts), intends to keep serving for as long as he can. He talked about what inspired him to enlist, why he keeps serving and the importance of saying as little about that action as possible.
Byers grew up in Ohio, the son of a World War-II-era sailor. Like father, like son: His dad didn’t speak much about his service, Byers said. Books and movies about war piqued the young Byers interest in the military. The 1990 action movie Navy SEALs, starring Charlie Sheen, pretty much sealed it.
“As I became more of a teenager, I started to get more into the unique missions and the secrecy behind the Navy SEALs,” Byers said. “From that moment on, there was just something inside of me that said, ‘This is what you’re going to do in life.’”
He joined the Navy in 1998, became a hospital corpsman, then a SEAL, and has deployed 11 times with nine combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s earned five Bronze Stars with valor, and been awarded two Purple Hearts. The only mission he’ll talk about — and not much at that — is the one that occurred on Dec. 8, 2012.
Indeed, if not for his “conspicuous gallantry” that night the details of that mission would remain largely secret. His SEAL Team Six, the same elite unit that killed Osama bin Laden, had been tapped to rescue Dilip Joseph, an American doctor taken hostage by the Taliban. As he has before every mission, Byers said a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.
“Defend us in battle,” it begins.
After a four-hour hike over rugged terrain on the cold night, Byers and his SEAL teammates approached the building where Joseph was being held. The first SEAL through the door, Chief Nicolas Checque, 28, was cut down by fire from an AK-47.
Byers barreled in behind Checque, killed a guard pointing a rifle at him, and tackled another man. Byers held that man with one hand while adjusting his night-vision goggles with the other. Byers determined that man wasn’t Joseph and killed him.
When Byers heard somebody speaking English, he hurled himself across the room and on top of Joseph to protect him from bullets whizzing across the room. At nearly the same instant, Byers grabbed the last guard by the throat and pinned him to wall where he was shot dead by other SEALs.
Five Taliban lay dead, and Byers, a trained paramedic, sought in vain to revive Checque. A helicopter whisked away the Americans. A report by The New York Times on the mission quoted Joseph as saying one of the Taliban fighters was captured alive and later was found dead. The Pentagon disputes that account.
Byers, in the interview, said he had not read Joseph’s book and doesn’t intend to. The military’s account of the mission is accurate, he said. Also not open for debate, according to Byers, is the bravery of Checque and the other SEALs, any of whom was prepared to die that night.
“First off, the loss of Nick Checque is a tragedy,” Byers said. “However, he died a warrior’s death. And that night was a success in everyone’s mind because we brought back an American hostage. That was our mission; it was a hostage rescue.
“So the no-fail aspect of that was we have to bring him back alive. And in doing so, Nic gave his life. I would like to think that if he was here right now, and he was asked to do it over again, he would. That’s what we do. That’s what we sign up to do.”
Byers, who is married and has an 11-year-old daughter, credited the support of his family, friends and the tight-knit SEAL community for allowing him to continue serving. He acknowledged the frequent combat tours take a toll, and noted that he has been deployed every year his daughter has been alive.
What he has more trouble stomaching, though, are the books written by retired SEALs that reveal secrets of their trade. No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden, was a best-seller in 2012 and has spawned several other books about SEALs. Don’t look for a first-person account by Byers of the mission that saved Joseph anytime soon.
“I’ve been in the military almost 18 years,” Byers said. “I’ve lived a very quiet life. I’m not exactly sure what their motives are and what they’re trying to accomplish by writing those. I’ve never read their books. I have no plans in the future to write a book or do a movie or anything like that. It’s not what I believe in.”
Byers is “very confident,” he says, that the majority of his secret warrior brethren feel the same way.
“We are currently facing one of the greatest threats to our nation that we’ve ever seen,” Byers said. “Anything that you could write about or talk about that could help our enemies when we do combat operations — that could potentially get any of our service members injured or killed — I just don’t think is the right call.”
Interviews about the Medal of Honor, he said, “are just something I have to do right now.”
After Monday, Byers will be content to go back to what qualifies for him as a “very quiet life.”
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