WASHINGTON – The Navy SEALs were founded on the first day of 1962 and have recently captured the national imagination due to their role in the elimination of Osama bin Laden and the Oscar-winning film “Zero Dark Thirty” about that mission.
Despite the group’s fame, only five Navy SEALs have been awarded the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. That number increased to six Monday, when President Barack Obama presented the medal to Senior Chief Ed Byers at the White House.
“This is obviously an award for individual heroism,” Obama said after he had placed the medal around Byers’ neck. “But I’m glad we were able to make the broader point – we are so grateful for your service to our nation.”
The crowd consisted of Byers’ family and an especially large group of military officials, who wore coats covered in patches and aiguillettes. The guests included Gen. Joe Votel and Vice Adm. Sean Pybus, both from the Special Operations Command, and Rear Adm. Brian Losey of the Naval Special Warfare Command.
“This may be the largest gathering of special ops in the history of the White House,” Obama said.
There was one major absence: Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque. Checque was a close friend of Byers’ and served in the same unit. It was on the night that Byers earned his Medal of Honor that Checque was killed.
On Dec. 8, 2012, Byers and a group of SEALs staged a rescue attempt to save Dr. Dilip Joseph, an American citizen who was training health-care workers in the war zone.
During the assault on the remote compound, Byers engaged in hand-to-hand combat and neutralized several guards. When he heard a voice cry out in English, he made his way through the darkness to Joseph. Byers threw himself on top of the hostage to protect him from close-quarter fire.
When the last guard had been eliminated, Byers helped move everyone quickly to the helicopters, and performed CPR during the entire trip back to base in a desperate attempt to save Checque’s life. Checque was pronounced dead on the team’s arrival back at base.
Obama took time to talk about Checque and his sacrifice. But the president mostly kept the speech on the lighter side.
“Ed’s mom, Peggy, who I understand had one question when Ed told her about this ceremony – ‘Do you think I can come?'” Obama said, drawing a big laugh from the audience.
Byers, 36, enlisted in the Navy when he was 19 and has been deployed overseas 11 times. He was awarded two Purple Hearts and five Bronze Stars.
After the guests left for a reception, Byers briefly addressed the media outside the West Wing. He did not answer any questions, but he thanked his family and his brothers in arms for their support.
“If it wasn’t for that team, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” he said.
Reach reporter Luke Torrance at [email protected] or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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