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‘They will lay down their life for you if they have to’

Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. is the first living Navy SEAL to receive the nation's top military honor since the Vietnam War. He speaks during his Hall of Heroes induction ceremony March 1, 2016, at the Pentagon.

OSCAR SOSA/U.S. NAVY

Medal of Honor and Navy Cross

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 6, 2016

Dec. 8, 2012 Laghman province, Afghanistan

At some point during the long journey leading to a tiny, one-room building deep in the remote eastern Afghanistan mountains where an American civilian was being held hostage, Navy SEAL Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward C. Byers Jr. bowed his head.

The mission — to rescue the American doctor who days earlier had been nabbed by Taliban gunmen — started like every other mission that the SEAL Team Six member had taken part in, with a private prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, said to provide protection in battle.

It would end with the death of an operator and, three years later, a Medal of Honor for Byers, who remains on active duty.

He became the first living Navy SEAL to receive the nation’s top military honor since the Vietnam War.

Byers, now 37, was the second SEAL through a makeshift door on the Dec. 8, 2012, mission. In front of him, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque was shot and mortally wounded. Byers continued forward on the “no-fail” assignment, quickly eliminating two armed Taliban fighters as he called out to the hostage, Dr. Dilip Joseph. When he heard a response in English, Byers leapt across the room, shielding the captive with his body. At the same time, the SEAL grabbed a nearby armed Taliban fighter by the throat, pinning him to a wall long enough for a teammate to kill him.

“It was over almost as soon as it began, in just minutes,” President Barack Obama said Feb. 29, just before presenting Byers the Medal of Honor. “By going after those guards, Ed saved the lives of several teammates and that hostage.”

In Byers’ brief time in the spotlight — the last place, the president said, the SEAL would prefer to be — he took every opportunity to shine that light on those who have made his service possible — his family, his SEAL teammates and, most emphatically, on his fallen friend, Nic Checque.

The credit for accomplishing that secretive mission that night belonged to Checque, 28, who was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest honor for military valor.

“Nic Checque was a warrior, a brother and a friend,” Byers told reporters outside the White House after the ceremony. “This award is inseparable from his death. Nic embodied the brotherhood. Nic embodied what it meant to be a Navy SEAL; he was hard as nails, resilient. He had a never quit, never fail mentality.

“Nicolas Checque paid the ultimate sacrifice doing what he loved on the battlefield, because this is what brothers do; they will lay down their life for you if they have to.”

Byers, a medic who served as a Navy hospital corpsman before joining the SEALs in 2003, worked to revive Checque on the 40-minute helicopter ride back to an American base. Eventually, he turned back to prayer — for Checque’s soul, “as he gave his life to save another American.”

Byers, who is Catholic, has worn an unofficial patch honoring St. Michael during combat missions over eight deployments.

The only thing that has served him as well as his strong faith and his SEAL brothers, he said, are his wife, Madison, and his daughter, Hannah.

“This could not have been possible without your resiliency and love,” Byers said to his family at the Pentagon on March 1, as he was inducted into the building’s Hall of Heroes. “Your strength in my absence is something I’ve always admired and respected. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

“I would not be the man I am if it were not for the two of you,” he said. “You are my heroes. I love you.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas D. Checque, 28, of Monroeville, Pa., was killed Dec. 8, 2012, in Afghanistan. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
COURTESY OF THE CHECQUE FAMILY AND THE U.S. NAVY

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