For Medal of Honor recipient Ed Byers, December 8, 2012 was a test of endurance and instinct.
After hours of stealthily slinking through the mountainous terrain of eastern Afghanistan, his Navy SEAL team reached its target: a single-room building where the Taliban was holding an American hostage.
As the team’s point man Nicolas Checque went after a guard, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Byers charged through the entrance. It was covered by hanging blankets, heavy ones that would certainly slow the team down.
Byers immediately started ripping them down as the Taliban fired. In the darkness, he made out an enemy in the far corner. He shot him, then straddled and subdued another person crawling across the floor.
“By the time I got to him, he already had a weapon in his hand,” Byers said in an interview with VOA. “I didn't know if he was just a scared hostage or if he was the actual enemy.”
He called for the hostage, Dr. Dilip Joseph, a father of four who had been teaching medical techniques in Afghanistan. Joseph answered back, a couple of meters away. Byers shot the enemy underneath him and jumped on top of Joseph, using his own body to shield the hostage from the barrage of bullets slicing through the dark night.
“When I did that, there was another person within arm's reach, another enemy that had a weapon and grenades and stuff that was in the corner,” Byers said. “I was able to pin that person to the wall by grabbing his throat and holding him there, as I'm laying on top of the doctor, until our team was able to come in and take care of that threat.”
The team secured the room and saved the hostage, completing what Byers called a “no fail mission.”
But the mission wasn’t without a steep price. Nicolas Checque, the team’s point man, was killed during the attack from a fatal shot in the head.
“He died a hero, and his name will forever be etched in history as being a true American hero,” Byers said.
White House Ceremony
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military award, given for gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. At a ceremony at the White House Monday, President Barack Obama presented Byers with the medal and praised him for his heroism.
"In just minutes, by going after those guards he had saved the lives of several teammates and that hostage,” Obama said.
Obama said it takes a very special American to “willingly volunteer for missions of extreme risk,” missions with “razor-thin” chances for survival.
“We send some thunder and some lightning…folks like Ed Byers.” Obama said.
Byers shuns the spotlight, leaving Obama to call him a “consummate quiet professional.” He has served in 11 overseas deployments and nine combat tours.
Byers, who remains in active duty, says he wears a patch of St. Michael the Archangel and prays to him before every mission. Those prayers, he says, have given him the confidence and the serenity needed tackle each dangerous task.
Aside from the Medal of Honor, Byers’ personal decorations include the five Bronze Stars with Valor, two Purple Hearts, the Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor, three Navy Commendation Medals, two Combat Action ribbons and five Good Conduct Medals.
“I followed a dream and I never envisioned that I'd be sitting here,” he told VOA. “I got to serve with some of the greatest people on the face of the planet, and that in and of itself is a truly humbling experience.”