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Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. talks to reporters after receiving the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony, Feb. 29, 2016.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. talks to reporters after receiving the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony, Feb. 29, 2016. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)
Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. talks to reporters after receiving the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony, Feb. 29, 2016.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. talks to reporters after receiving the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony, Feb. 29, 2016. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)
Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. smiles as President Barack Obama talks about him during the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House, Feb. 29, 2016.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. smiles as President Barack Obama talks about him during the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House, Feb. 29, 2016. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)
Among the guests at the Medal of Honor ceremony for Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr.at the White House were previous recipients of the nation's highest military award, Florent Groberg, left, and Thomas Kelley.
Among the guests at the Medal of Honor ceremony for Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr.at the White House were previous recipients of the nation's highest military award, Florent Groberg, left, and Thomas Kelley. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)
President Barack Obama speaks during the Medal of Honor ceremony for Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. at the White House, Feb. 29, 2016.
President Barack Obama speaks during the Medal of Honor ceremony for Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. at the White House, Feb. 29, 2016. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)
Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. receives the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony, Feb. 29, 2016.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. receives the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony, Feb. 29, 2016. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)
President Barack Obama acknowledges previous Medal of Honor recipients during the ceremony for Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. on Feb. 29, 2016.
President Barack Obama acknowledges previous Medal of Honor recipients during the ceremony for Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. on Feb. 29, 2016. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)
President Barack Obama claps after giving Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. the Medal of Honor on Feb. 29, 2016.
President Barack Obama claps after giving Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. the Medal of Honor on Feb. 29, 2016. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)
Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr.  awaits the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on Feb. 29, 2016.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. awaits the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on Feb. 29, 2016. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)
An information graphic showing the December 2012 rescue mission that led to Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Edward C. Byers Jr. receiving the Medal of Honor.
An information graphic showing the December 2012 rescue mission that led to Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Edward C. Byers Jr. receiving the Medal of Honor. (Austin Rooney/U.S. Navy graphic)

WASHINGTON — A member of Navy SEAL Team 6 who covered an American civilian with his own body to protect him during a deadly firefight deep in the remote eastern Afghanistan mountains was presented the Medal of Honor on Monday.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. stood stoic in front of a large crowd in the East Room of the White House as President Barack Obama placed the nation’s highest military honor around his neck.

Byers, 36, received the honor more than three years after he and a small team of the military’s most elite special operators were sent on a “no-fail” mission to retrieve Dr. Dilip Joseph, an American who had been captured by the Taliban days earlier. As the second SEAL through the door of the tiny, one-room building where Joseph was being held, Byers quickly engaged two Taliban fighters, calling out to locate Joseph.

“Hearing English, Ed leapt across the room and threw himself on the hostage using his own body to shield him from the bullets,” Obama said, adding that Byers simultaneously pinned an armed Taliban fighter to a wall with his bare hand, long enough for a teammate to eliminate the threat.

“It was over almost as soon as it begin, in just minutes,” Obama said. “By going after those guards, Ed saved the lives of several teammates and that hostage.”

Despite his actions, Byers told reporters on Monday that he was not the hero that day. That person, the SEAL insisted, was Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque, the first teammate through the door, who was mortally wounded.

“This award is truly his,” Byers said after the ceremony. “He was an American hero and the hero of that operation. … Our nation owes him a debt of gratitude.”

For his actions that day, Checque was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the service's second highest honor for valor. Obama, during his remarks Monday, mentioned the fallen SEAL's family, honoring them for their sacrifice and acknowledging the nation's "obligation to stand with them" and other Gold Star families "always."

Byers is the 11th living servicemember to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan. He’s the sixth Navy SEAL to be awarded the medal and the first living SEAL to receive it since the Vietnam War.

That made Monday’s ceremony especially unique, the president said, acknowledging the dozens of uniformed SEALs, senior special operations leaders and retired operators who joined Byers’ family and friends for the ceremony.

The honor, Obama said, was “a rare opportunity for the American people to get a glimpse of a special breed of warrior that so often serves in the shadows.”

Byers, who enlisted in the Navy in 1998 and has been a SEAL since 2003, will continue to serve as a special operator.

“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 said. “I don’t know for sure how this will change my life. I just plan on taking it one step at a time.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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