Other than the fact that Feb. 29 happens only once every four years, it was an ordinary day for most Americans, filled with the same routines. For Senior Chief Edward C. Byers Jr., a member of SEAL Team 6, it was a Leap Day he’ll never forget.
Members of his family, many of his peers and several other Medal of Honor recipients watched intently as Byers stepped out of the shadows to accept the nation’s highest military award from President Barack Obama.
Having spent much of his career out of view, often putting his life at risk to accomplish some of the world’s most important missions, Byers stood at attention while the man he risked life and limb to save watched the president drape the medal around his neck.
“Today’s ceremony is truly unique – a rare opportunity for the American people to get a glimpse of a special breed of warrior that so often serves in the shadows,” Obama said. “We’re a nation of more than 300 million Americans. Of these, less than 1 percent wear the uniform of our armed forces. Of these, just a small fraction serve in our Special Operations forces. Among those who train to become a SEAL, only a select few emerge and earn the right to wear that golden trident.”
While much of the mission to rescue Dr. Dilip Joseph, an American citizen who was captured by the Taliban, remains classified, one thing was evident – Byers, the first living SEAL awarded the Medal of Honor since Vietnam, and other members of the SEAL team were willing to pay any price to get Joseph out alive.
Team member Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas D. Checque, the first SEAL to enter the room, was mortally wounded that day when he entered through the doorway into the space where Joseph was being held. Byers recalled running to Joseph to shield him with his body after he heard the doctor call out in English. As he protected the doctor, Byers restrained a Taliban fighter while his teammates cleared the room.
“Everything we do, we do it as a team,” Byers said. “If it wasn’t for that team, I wouldn’t be standing here today. Specifically, my teammate, friend and brother Nick Checque. He was the hero of that operation. He died a warrior… Our nation owes him a debt of gratitude.”
While all of the people who were affected that day try to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives, Byers expressed how excited he was to get back to doing what he loves the most – serving as a SEAL.
“The thoughts of Nick and other brothers who have made the ultimate sacrifice, I believe, is what will carry me through bearing the responsibilities that come with bearing this honor. I don’t know how this will change my life. I just plan on taking it one step at a time and continue doing my job in the Navy and being a SEAL, doing the thing I’ve loved ever since I was a child.”
To see the full citation for his Medal of Honor, click here.