President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Navy SEAL Edward C. Byers, a senior chief special warfare operator, during a ceremony Monday in the East Room of the White House.
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Monday.
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
President Barack Obama and Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers arrive for a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Monday.
U.S. Navy/Associated Press
U.S. Navy Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Edward C. Byers Jr.
By Taylor Dungjen and Jonathan D. Silver / Block News Alliance
TONTOGANY, Ohio — While using himself to shield an American hostage during a barrage of gunfire, Navy SEAL Edward C. Byers Jr. fought a combatant hand to hand.
A senior chief special warfare operator, Chief Byers was serving in Afghanistan at the time.
He immobilized the guard with his bare hands and restrained him “until a teammate could eliminate him,” a White House aide said Monday during a ceremony in which Chief Byers, 36, a native of Toledo, Ohio, was awarded the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor. Although the hostage was rescued, the mission resulted in the death of a fellow SEAL from Westmoreland County.
President Barack Obama also honored Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas D. Checque, a Norwin High School graduate who was 28 when he was shot in the head and killed during the operation. The president noted that he is among 55 SEALs to make the ultimate sacrifice since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“He was an American hero, and he was the hero of that operation,” Chief Byers told reporters in a statement he read after the ceremony. “He died a warrior. He died to bring back another American.”
Chief Byers graduated in 1997 from Otsego High School in suburban Toledo. “I can’t get over that he did all of it at the same time,” said Haili Brooks, 18, a senior at the high school. More than 100 Otsego students watched the ceremony in an assembly.
School principal Kevin O’Shea told students before the ceremony that Chief Byers was “someone who epitomizes what sacrifice and service is all about. This is about someone we’re proud of from our hometown.”
Chief Byers was just a kid from a small Ohio town, like all of them, who went on to do tremendous things in his Navy career, the principal said.
Mr. Obama noted during the ceremony that only five other Navy SEALs have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Chief Byers seemed “destined to serve,” with his father having served in the Navy during World War II, the president said.
“As a boy growing up in Grand Rapids, Ohio, Ed would be in the woods, in camouflage, in his words, ‘playing military’ — and I suspect the other kids did not stand a chance,” he said.
Chief Byers has had 11 overseas deployments and completed nine combat tours. He has twice received the Purple Heart and was awarded the Bronze Star with valor five times.
“It’s very motivational,” said Drew Teifke, 18, a senior who will leave Sept. 12 to start military training. “A guy from a small town like this, from a small school like Otsego, can get the highest honor. … Maybe someday I can do half of what he did and be great like him.”
He said he hopes to someday meet Chief Byers and learn about what he endured and what it takes to excel in the Navy and the SEALs.
“I would leave tomorrow and fight for the country and fight for other soldiers like him,” Drew said. “It motivates me to do great things.”
On Dec. 9, 2012, Chief Byers was one in a team of SEALs who rescued an American doctor held hostage in Afghanistan. SEALs found the target location and rushed the doorway, which, according to a retelling Monday of the incident, was covered by a layer of blankets.
Chief Byers ripped down the blankets, putting himself in the line of fire; a teammate, Petty Officer Checque, the lead assaulter, went in first and was shot. Chief Byers went in next, taking down “an enemy guard” and then another who he engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
Hearing the doctor call out, Chief Byers “threw himself on the hostage, using his own body to shield him from the bullets.” As he shielded the doctor, another enemy guard approached, and Chief Byers “pinned the fighter to the wall and held him until his teammates took action,” Mr. Obama said.
Petty Officer Checque was a 10-year military veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had been awarded the Bronze Star, the Joint Service Commendation Medal and the Navy/Marine Corps commendation and achievement medals for service during combat, among other honors.
Described by his former guidance counselor as the “strong, silent type,” Petty Officer Checque wrestled and impressed his friends with his work ethic and determination. He was so committed to becoming a SEAL, one friend said, that when he learned in high school that candidates’ vision had to be perfect, he got Lasik surgery to correct his vision.
The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.
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