WASHINGTON — President Obama will present the Medal of Honor to a Navy SEAL for his role in a dramatic nighttime raid of a Taliban compound that led to the rescue of an American doctor in Afghanistan in 2012, the White House said Tuesday.
Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers, a member of SEAL Team Six, will be presented the nation’s highest military honor in a ceremony in the White House Feb. 29. Byers, 36, was part of an elite special forces operation that rescued an American doctor who had been kidnapped for ransom by Taliban fighters while trying to establish medical clinics in the war-torn country.
Byers’ actions were so clearly beyond expectation, even for a Navy SEAL, that the Navy had no hesitation in nominating him for the Medal of Honor, according to a Defense official familiar with his case but not authorized to speak publicly about it.
“There’s no margin of doubt or possibility of error in awarding this honor,” the Defense official said. “His actions were so conspicuous in terms of bravery and self-sacrifice that they clearly distinguished him to be worthy of the award, including risk of his own life.”
But even with the announcement of his Medal of Honor, much about the mission — and Byers’ role in it — remains secret. While the White House usually gives a much more detailed account of what a service member has done to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Byers commendation cites only “his courageous actions while serving as part of a team that rescued an American civilian being held hostage in Afghanistan, December 8-9, 2012.”
It was sometime after midnight on the 9th that Dr. Dilip Joseph — the medical director for the faith-based nonprofit Morning Star Development going into his fifth day of captivity by ransom-seeking Taliban fighters — heard dogs barking and sheep bleating outside the small, stone-and-mud shack where he was held in the mountains east of Kabul.
Two of his captors went out to investigate, but came back and conferred quietly, evidently seeing nothing outside.
Joseph had a runny nose, and was trying to clear it with a well-used handkerchief quietly, so as not to offend Afghan sensibilities about blowing one’s nose in public. He was on the edge of sleep when he heard the first gunshots, he recounted in a 2014 book, Kidnapped by the Taliban: A Story of Terror, Hope, and Rescue by SEAL Team Six.
“Is Dilip Joseph here?” shouted one of the heavily armed men, wearing night-vision goggles and speaking English. When Joseph identified himself, one of the SEALs — Joseph doesn’t know for sure — immediately laid down on top of him to protect him from the fighting, asking about his welfare. Amid the gunfire, the SEAL calmly asked if he had been fed, if he could walk, and if he had been mistreated.
Five Taliban fighters were killed. One Navy SEAL — the first one in the door, who the others called Nic — had been shot in the forehead.
As they waited for a helicopter 12 minutes out, the SEALs protected Joseph by “sandwiching” him between two team members. The one in front of him kept calling to the one behind him, named “Ed,” the only other name he heard that night or since. That man, he now knows for the first time, is Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers.
“What are you doing?” asked the one in front.
“Praying for Nic,” said the one named Ed. “Praying that he’ll be O.K.”
Later, Joseph learned 28-year-old Petty Officer 1st class Nicolas Checque, of Monroeville, Pa., had been killed.
The mission has been controversial. In a report on SEAL Team Six last year, The New York Times highlighted discrepancies between Joseph’s recollection and the official account. Joseph said that after the shooting stopped, he saw one of the Taliban fighters — a 19-year-old he called Wallakah, who he had tried to bond with during his captivity — alive, unhurt and apparently subdued. When he returned inside to wait for the helicopter, Wallakah was dead. The Pentagon has disputed that account.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Joseph betrayed mixed feelings in an attempt to reconcile his overwhelming gratitude to the SEALs with the surgical, fatal nature of the operation. It’s that contradiction — the compassion and selflessness of these highly-trained special forces — that’s left the most lasting impression of SEAL Team Six.
“It was amazingly clinical how they handled the whole situation,” Joseph said. “They’re just amazing. They’re very good at what they’re trained to do. But they’re human too.”
Joseph caught a rare glimpse of that humanity the next day, when he was granted special access to the “ramp” ceremony for Checque. As he watched the SEAL team solemnly load their fallen comrade’s body onto a C-17 cargo plane, Joseph saw tears running down their cheeks.
Only five Navy SEALs have ever been awarded the Medal of Honor, three in Vietnam and one each — posthumously — for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Byers is the first living sailor to be awarded the Medal of Honor since 1998, when President Bill Clintonawarded one retroactively for action in the Vietnam war.
Navy Sea, Air and Land Teams, known as SEALs, are one of the military’s most elite, secretive and storied special forces units. It was a similar SEAL Team Six unit that found and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
While the Pentagon did not confirm that Byers was a member of SEAL Team Six — a unit designation not officially acknowledged — Joseph said his rescuers gave him a rare SEAL military coin with the numeral VI on it.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “strongly recommended” Byers for the Medal of Honor in December 2014, according to a memo obtained by USA TODAY under the Freedom of Information Act.
The unusual delay in awarding the medal stems in part from a recent deployment that prevented him from traveling to Washington, according to a senior Defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Under a 1905 executive order by President Teddy Roosevelt, Medal of Honor recipients are ordered to Washington to have the medal presented by the president. Since 1984, every Medal of Honor ceremony has been at the White House, according to data from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
For Byers, the Medal of Honor caps an already impressive array of military decorations, including five Bronze Stars with valor, two Purple Hearts, the Joint Service Commendation Medal with valor, three Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals (one with valor), two Combat Action Ribbons, three Presidential Unit Citations, two Joint Meritorious Unit Awards, two Navy Unit Commendations, and five Good Conduct Medals.
He was promoted to senior chief special warfare operator just two weeks ago, a rank equivalent to master sergeant, according to Department of Defenserecords.
Since being trained as a Navy SEAL and combat medic in 2003, he’s had eight deployments as a Navy SEAL — seven in combat. While the exact locations of those assignments are secret, his commendations suggest service in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Edward Carl Byers Jr. was born in Toledo, Ohio, and graduated from Otsego High School in the small town of Tontogany, Ohio, in 1997. He joined the Navy in September 1998.
For years, most of what his hometown knew about his military service was a line in the church bulletin of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Toledo, asking parishioners to pray for those currently serving the country. While others were listed by rank, the bulletin describes Byers only as a Navy serviceman.
Byers is the 11th living service member to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan. The White House said Tuesday that he would be joined by his family for the White House ceremony later this month.
He will graduate early this year from Norwich University, a Vermont military college, with a Bachelor of Science in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis.