In the darkness of a single-room building in Afghanistan, Navy Senior Chief Edward C. Byers Jr. had little time to react: A fellow Navy SEAL had just been shot in the head during a hostage rescue mission, and it wasn’t clear who else in the room wanted to kill the American team.

Byers burst in anyway, shooting a Taliban fighter who had an automatic rifle aimed at him. Another man scrambled to the corner of the room where another rifle was stored, so Byers tackled him and then tried to adjust his night-vision goggles to see whether he was the American hostage. The hostage, lying five feet away, called out in English, so Byers killed the insurgent he was straddling and then hurled himself on top of the hostage to protect him from gunfire. At the same time, Byers pinned another enemy fighter to the wall with a hand to the throat until another SEAL shot the militant.

Byers, 36, will receive the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony Monday for his actions on Dec. 8, 2012. But he must now do something else difficult for someone in his line of work: Step out of the shadows and in front of news cameras as he receives the nation’s highest award for valor in combat.

Byers is believed to be the first living service member to ever receive the Medal of Honor for actions while serving in the highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Defense officials declined to confirm that, but said that Byers is the first living SEAL to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. JSOC, created in 1980, includes the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team 6, the Army’s Delta Force and other elite units. U.S. officials have previously acknowledged that the 2012 raid was carried out by SEAL Team 6.

“I’ve lived my entire career a very private life,” Byers said Friday in an interview at the Pentagon. “We don’t talk about what we do, and this honor carries with it some obligations that I need to carry out. You know, you follow those through. But, I plan to continue doing my job as normal and  to continue being a SEAL. It’s something I love and grew up wanting to be.”

The SEALs successfully extracted the hostage, Dilip Joseph, a doctor, from the clutches of the Taliban, but the first SEAL through the doorway ahead of Byers, Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas D. Checque, 28, was killed. Checque posthumously received the Navy Cross, one step down from the Medal of Honor, for his heroism in the mission, Navy officials said. That has not previously been reported, and is not listed on the Defense Department’s online listing of valor recipients.

Only two members of JSOC are known to have earned the Medal of Honor: Army Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart. They were members of Delta Force who received the award posthumously for heroism in Somalia on Oct. 3, 1993, during the battle later detailed in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”

Byers, a blue-eyed, burly man, grew up in Grand Rapids, Ohio, a small town southwest of Toledo. He visited the Pentagon with his wife and 11-year-old daughter last week clean-shaven and in a khaki uniform, a dramatic departure from the camouflage and thick beard he has worn in combat. His father served in the Navy during World War II, and the younger Byers decided at an early age to join the military and pursue becoming a SEAL, he said.

“I liked everything about what they represented, or what I thought they represented,” Byers said. “The difficult missions they take on, the secrecy around what they do, the Special Operations aspect, the cool gear, the good equipment.”

Byers enlisted in 1998 after graduating from high school, initially becoming a Navy corpsman and serving as a medic. He first served at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, a hospital in Chicago run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and as corpsman with the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

He entered the famous Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL school in San Diego, better known as BUD/S, in 2002 a few months after U.S. military operations in Afghanistan began and while the Pentagon was preparing to invade Iraq the following year. He was assigned to his first operational SEAL team in May 2004, and has remained assigned to SEAL teams based in Little Creek, Va., according to biographical information released by the Navy. He has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Specifics about Byers’s time overseas are scant, but he has earned two Purple Hearts for being wounded in combat and five Bronze Stars with V device, a lower-level but still prestigious award that recognizes heroism. A Roman Catholic, he said he has drawn strength for years from praying to St. Michael the Archangel, who in the Book of Revelation led an army in heaven against evil forces.

“My entire career in combat operations, I’ve always wore a St. Michael the Archangel patch on my back,” he said. “And I got that off of a guy in my first Iraq tour. That patch is really special to me because every single mission I’ve ever done, I’ve always said a prayer to St. Michael to protect and watch over us, and I think those prayers are a good aspect and a big aspect of what helps sustain me through all those times away from home, and away from my wife, and away from my daughter and friends and family.”

Read more at The Washington Post

Featured photo by MC1 Tim D. Godbee/