USA TODAY US Edition

Medal of Honor recipient prefers shadows to spotlight

SEAL helped rescue American doctor in Afghanista­n in 2012

- Tom Vanden Brook

WASHINGTON Imagine yourself in the most dangerous, dire circumstan­ce — held hostage, say, by the Taliban. You’d want a guy just like Edward Byers looking for you.

Byers will receive the military’s highest award — the Medal of Honor — on Monday for helping rescue an American doctor in Afghanista­n in 2012.

He’ll shake President Obama’s hand and acknowledg­e the loss of a treasured colleague. Later, Senior Chief Byers — the sixth Navy SEAL to receive the award — will gladly slip back into the shadows and the exquisitel­y dangerous, secretive work that has become his life’s calling.

“As you get older, of course, your body starts to break down a little bit,” Byers, 36, told USA TODAY at the Pentagon. “Still fit enough to keep going.” Byers intends to keep serving for as long as he can. He talked about what inspired him to enlist and the importance of saying as little about his service as possible.

Byers grew up in Ohio, the son of a World War-II-era sailor. Like father, like son: His dad didn’t speak much about his service, Byers said. Books and movies about war piqued the young Byers’ interest in the military. The 1990 action movie Navy

SEALs, starring Charlie Sheen, pretty much sealed it.

“As I became more of a teenager, I started to get more into the unique missions and the secrecy behind the Navy SEALs,” Byers said.

He joined the Navy in 1998, became a hospital corpsman, then a SEAL, and has deployed 11 times, including nine combat tours in Iraq and Afghanista­n. He’s earned five Bronze Stars with valor and been awarded two Purple Hearts. The only mission he’ll talk about — and not much at that — is the one that occurred Dec. 8, 2012.

If not for his “conspicuou­s gallantry” that night, the details of that mission would remain largely secret. His SEAL Team Six, the same elite unit that killed Osama bin Laden, was tapped to rescue Dilip Joseph, an American doctor taken hostage by the Taliban.

After a four-hour hike over rugged terrain on a cold night, Byers and his SEAL teammates approached the building where Joseph was being held. The first SEAL through the door, Chief Nicolas Checque, 28, was cut down by fire from an AK-47.

Byers barreled in behind Checque, killed a guard pointing a rifle at him and tackled another man. Byers held that man with one hand while adjusting his night-vision goggles with the other. Byers determined the man wasn’t Joseph and killed him.

When Byers heard somebody speaking English, he hurled himself on top of Joseph to protect him from bullets whizzing across the room. At nearly the same instant, Byers grabbed a guard by the throat and pinned him to a wall where he was shot dead by other SEALs.

Five Taliban members lay dead, and Byers, a trained para- medic, sought in vain to revive Checque. A helicopter whisked away the Americans. A report by

The New York Times quoted Joseph as saying one of the Taliban fighters was captured alive and was found dead later. The Pentagon disputes that account.

Byers said he had not read Joseph’s book and doesn’t intend to. The military’s account of the mission is accurate, he said. Also not open for debate, according to Byers, is the bravery of Checque and the other SEALs, any of whom was prepared to die that night.

“The loss of Nick Checque is a tragedy,” Byers said. “However, he died a warrior’s death. And that night was a success in everyone’s mind because we brought back an American hostage. That was our mission; it was a hostage rescue. So the no-fail aspect of that was we have to bring him back alive. And in doing so, Nic gave his life. I would like to think that if he was here right now, and he was asked to do it over again, he would. That’s what we do.”

He has trouble stomaching books written by retired SEALs that reveal secrets of their trade. “Anything that you could write about or talk about that could help our enemies when we do combat operations — that could potentiall­y get any of our servicemem­bers injured or killed — I just don’t think is the right call,” he said.

Interviews about the Medal of Honor, he said, “are just something I have to do right now.”

After Monday, Byers will be content to go back to what qualifies for him as a “very quiet life.”

“Anything that you could write about or talk about that could help our enemies ... I just don’t think is the right call.”

Edward Byers, Medal of Honor recipient

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