WASHINGTON — When gunfire erupted, Edward Byers did not hesitate.
He was the second Navy SEAL through a makeshift door of the small, one-room Taliban hideout where an American doctor was being held captive. It was just after midnight on Dec. 8, 2012, in a remote mountain area of the Laghman province of eastern Afghanistan.
The first SEAL through the door was shot and laid mortally wounded as Byers entered and engaged one enemy holding an AK-47, then bounded across the room and tackled a second, according to the official medal citation. Moments later, Byers heard the sound of the doctor’s voice and leaped on top of the hostage to protect him while simultaneously grabbing a third Taliban fighter by the throat and pinning him to a wall long enough for another SEAL to shoot and kill him.
For Byers’ bravery in the bloody hostage rescue that day, the senior chief petty officer will receive the nation’s highest honor for military valor. He will become the 11th living servicemember to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan.
Byers will be the only the third sailor presented the medal since the 9/11 terror attacks. Lt. Michael Murphy, also a Navy SEAL, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions in Afghanistan in 2005, and SEAL Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor, a master-at-arms, was posthumously awarded the medal for actions in Iraq in 2006.
President Barack Obama will present Byers, 36, with his medal on Feb. 29, the White House said in a brief statement released Tuesday that cited only “courageous actions” during a hostage rescue. The summary of action obtained later by Stars and Stripes detailed the mission to rescue Dr. Dilip Joseph.
Joseph, in Afghanistan to help establish medical facilities through the nonprofit group Morning Star Development, had been captured with two Afghans outside Kabul on Dec. 5.
Acting on intelligence that Joseph might be moved to another location the next day, a SEAL team launched an “exhaustive patrol across unimproved trails and mountainous terrain,” under the cover of night, according to summary of Byers’ actions.
“Success of the rescue operation relied upon surprise, speed, and aggressive action,” the summary stated. “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.”
That risk heightened when an AK-47-wielding guard spotted the force as it moved within about 25 yards of the building that held Dr. Joseph. Shots were fired as the lead SEAL moved forward and entered the shelter where he was wounded. Byers “fully aware of the hostile threat inside the room, boldly entered,” eventually rescuing the captive and helping kill more than a handful of Taliban fighters.
“Once Dr. Joseph was moved to the helicopter-landing zone, Chief Byers, a certified paramedic and … medic, assisted with the rendering of medical aid to the (wounded) assaulter,” the summary stated. “Chief Byers and others performed CPR during the 40-minute flight to Bagram Airfield where his teammate was declared deceased.”
The summary of Byers’ actions did not name the Navy SEAL who was killed in the raid. However, 28-year-old Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque was killed during a raid Dec. 8, the Pentagon said at the time. It said he had been assigned to an East Coast-based naval special warfare unit.
Neither the Navy nor the White House have identified Byers’ unit, but various media reports said the Navy’s elite and highly secretive SEAL Team 6 carried out the raid to free Joseph.
Byers, a native of Toledo, Ohio, is no stranger to valorous acts. He has been awarded at least seven medals for combat valor, including five Bronze Stars with “V” device. He’s also been awarded two Purple Hearts and two Combat Action Ribbons.
He enlisted in the Navy as a hospital corpsman in 1998, about a year after graduating from Otesgo High School in Tontogany, Ohio, according to the White House. Byers became a SEAL in 2003 and has served with several East Coast-based teams.
Medals of Honor have been rare for Navy SEALs, who some people in the defense community say are held to higher standards than other troops. Only five SEALs have received the medal, the first three for actions during the Vietnam War.
Byers’ actions, a defense official said, left no doubt he deserved the nation’s highest honor for valor.
“Chief Petty Officer Byers displayed superior gallantry, extraordinary heroism at grave personal risk, dedication to his teammates, and calm tactical leadership while liberating Dr. Dilip Joseph from captivity,” the defense official said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to publicly discuss Byers’ actions. “He is unquestionably deserving of the Medal of Honor.”