Navy SEALs are supposed to operate in the shadows. Once their names are known—once they come into the light—their careers on the front lines are typically over. But officials swear that a hero SEAL—the newest Medal of Honor recipient—will be allowed to go on secretive missions, if that’s what he really wants.
“It’s up to him to decide,” said a senior military official after Monday’s White House ceremony to award Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers Jr., 36, the nation’s highest military honor.
Byers is the first living, active-duty SEAL to receive the award in 40 years, for his role in rescuing an American doctor kidnapped by militants in Afghanistan in December 2012.
He accepted the award on behalf of his teammates, and Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas D. Checque, 28, the fellow SEAL who was lost on the mission.
“The award is truly his. He was the hero of the operation,” Byers told reporters after the ceremony. “He died a warrior.”
Checque was shot in the head when he burst first through the entry of the building where Dr. Dilip Joseph was being held.
He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
Seeing his teammate injured, Byers had followed him into the building, as described by President Barack Obama in Monday’s ceremony.
“Fully aware of the danger, Ed moved in next. An enemy guard aimed his rifle right at him. Ed fired,” Obama said, describing the hand-to-hand struggle with enemy fighters who surged into the room.
In the melee, Byers heard the hostage speak.
“Hearing English, Ed leapt across the room and threw himself on the hostage, using his own body to shield him from the bullets,” the president said. “Another enemy fighter appeared, and with his body, Ed kept shielding the hostage. With his bare hands, Ed pinned the fighter to the wall and held him until his teammates took action.”
Once the hostage was safe, Byers worked unsuccessfully to save teammate Checque, performing CPR on him on the 40-minute return flight.
Despite those risks, Byers does want to remain an active member of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team Six, the unit responsible for killing Osama bin Laden.
“I don’t know for sure how this will change my life. I just plan on taking it one step at a time,” Byers said Monday. “I’ll continue doing my job in the Navy, continue being a SEAL.”
He’ll be pressured to do anything but, according to Mike Thornton, one of the last Navy SEALs to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
“After receiving the medal, there are expectations on who you are and what they think you should be,” said Thornton, who was awarded the medal 43 years ago for rescuing fellow Navy SEAL Tommy Norris. Norris is the last living SEAL before Byers to be awarded the honor just 40 years ago, for rescuing two downed pilots in Vietnam. The two SEALs sat in the front row at the ceremony.
“You have to live it your way,” Thornton said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I think that’s what he’s trying to do, keep it low key. He still wants to be part of the mission.”
Thornton knows because he got permission to go back to combat in Desert Storm, nearly two decades after the fight that won him the Medal of Honor.
“Main thing I told Ed is, you can say ‘no.’ Don’t let people pull you this way and that,” he said, though he would not share details of the wisdom he and SEAL Norris shared with their newest inductee the night before the ceremony.
“Good for us,” said retired General John Allen, when told of Byers’s determination to keep doing his job.
“To my knowledge, there’s no limitation on a Medal of Honor recipient serving in combat,” said Allen, who commanded U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and green-lit the rescue mission for the American doctor.
“We got early indications on where he was,” Allen said in an interview Monday. “We also got indications there was a [Taliban] team coming from Pakistan to take him across the border. That forced me to make the decision to go.”
Byers’s SEAL team was among those standing by to act.
“I was in the special ops joint operations center in my headquarters in Kabul watching it from a live full motion video feed from a Predator [drone] overhead. So I had a chance to see them move down off the high ground and set security around the objective, stack the assault force, who went through the front door and accomplished the mission,” he said.
“They executed the mission magnificently,” said Allen, whose last job in government was to lead the U.S. mission against the so-called Islamic State.
Allen added that it’s possible for Byers to keep doing the door-kicking part of the job, if that’s what he wants. He doesn’t have to ride a desk for the rest of his career.
“If it’s a strike force unit, their identities are not revealed even on the objective,” he said, meaning that the SEALs don’t show their faces when they strike a target, as they are usually bearded and wearing sunglasses or night vision goggles.
Byers’s fame means he couldn’t travel the way some of the elite operators travel, through commercial airports, sometimes working out of U.S. embassies as invited liaisons to local counterterrorism units.
But that still leaves Byers with a wide range of special operations missions he could still do, and with the ISIS fight expanding, plenty of targets out there to go after, Allen said.