Edward Byers was the second Navy SEAL through the door of a house in eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban was holding an American doctor.
The first got shot immediately.
Then Byers rushed in. Wearing body armor and night-vision goggles, he shot and grappled with guards while calling out for the hostage. A voice replied from a few feet away: “I’m right here.”
Byers threw himself on doctor to cover him from gunfire. With a free hand, Byers grabbed a nearby captor by the throat and pinned him to the wall until another member of the six-man SEAL team shot him.
“Anyone who’s been in combat knows that in those moments, you either react or you get killed,” Byers said recently, recalling the Dec. 9, 2012 operation.
In the chaos, the doctor, aid worker Dilip Joseph, was rescued, and the SEAL team member ahead of him, 28-year-old Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque, died.
On Feb. 29, Byers, a member of SEAL Team 6, stepped from the shadows — the unit operates covertly, and its existence often goes unacknowledged by the military — to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, for his actions that day.
President Obama, who gave Byers the medal in a ceremony at the White House, called him a “consummate, quiet professional” who shunned the spotlight.
Byers said nothing, standing rigidly beside the president, flashing the occasional smile.
Byers, 36, is the sixth SEAL to receive the Medal of Honor, and the eleventh living service member to receive it for actions in Afghanistan.
But he doesn’t consider himself a hero.
That distinction, he said, belongs to the men who fought alongside him, particularly Checque.
“He will forever be remembered in the pages of history for the sacrifices he made,” Byers said in a Navy video.
The rescue operation began with the SEAL team hiking four hours over mountainous terrain to reach the compound in the Qarghah’i District of Laghman Province, Afghanistan were the Taliban were holding Joseph, according to the official military account.
Joseph wrote a book about the operation, “Kidnapped by the Taliban: A Story of Terror, Hope and Rescue by SEAL Team 6,” saying that until the SEALs arrived, he believed the Taliban would soon kill him.
Checque was the team’s point man. As the SEALs approached the compound, a guard noticed them. Checque shot him. He and Byers rush to the door, which was covered by layers of blankets. Byers began ripping the blankets away, and Checque went inside. He was immediately shot in the head by AK-47 fire.
Byers followed. He shot a guard, then noticed another who seemed to be crawling for a gun. Byers jumped on him, and after confirming that it wasn’t Joseph, and shot that guard, too.
He heard Joseph nearby, and jumped on him through the firefight, in which five Taliban were killed.
Byers, a medic from Toledo, Ohio, said that after leading Joseph out of the house, he joined others trying to resuscitate Checque, who was pronounced dead at a hospital.
More than three years later, Byers got a call from the White House asking if he had time to speak to the president. Obama told him that he’d approved Byers for the Medal of Honor.
“There’s a weight that that carries with, and that weight is the sacrifice that everyone has made in this community,” Byers said.
“It’s an affirmation of the job we do, an appreciation for the job we do.”
Byers, a married father, has completed 11 overseas deployments with nine combat tours, said he has no plans to take it easy. He now holds the rank of senior chief special warfare operator.
“I’m going to continue being a SEAL and take whatever job or position is next for me,” he said.