Navy SEAL receives Medal of Honor for hostage rescue

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U.S. Navy SEAL Edward Byers receives the Medal of Honor for heroism during the rescue of an American hostage in Afghanistan

The senior chief special warfare operator subdued insurgents with hand-to-hand combat

The rescued hostage tells CNN that he is "thrilled" that Byers is getting the award

CNN  — 

Navy SEAL Edward Byers received the Medal of Honor on Monday morning for his role in rescuing an American civilian being held hostage by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama awarded Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Byers the nation’s highest medal for valor in combat, while pointing out that only five other SEALs had received the honor ever before.

“Ed is defined by a deep sense of humility, he doesn’t seek the spotlight, in fact he shuns it. He’s the consummate quiet professional,” Obama said during the White House ceremony. “Today’s ceremony is truly unique – a rare opportunity for the American people to get a glimpse of a special breed of warrior that so often serves in the shadows.”

The White House had previously highlighted Byers’ “courageous actions” and “selfless service” during the December 2012 operation. Obama described the encounter as involving “hand-to-hand combat” with multiple adversaries.

According to an unclassified summary from a defense official obtained by CNN, Byers “displayed superior gallantry, extraordinary heroism at grave personal risk” and is “unquestionably deserving of the Medal of Honor.”

The rescue of American Dr. Dilip Joseph, which took place in eastern Afghanistan, resulted in the death of a member of the Navy’s Special Warfare Development Group, more commonly known as SEAL Team Six. During Monday’s ceremony in the East Room, President Obama related the most crucial moments of the rescue mission.

When the rescuers were less than 100 feet from the building where Joseph was being held, a guard came out and bullets started flying. SEALs rushed to a doorway, and Byers started ripping down blankets that covered it, exposing himself to enemy fire.

The leader of the rescue group pushed inside and was hit. When Byers moved inside next, a guard aimed his rifle at him, and Byers fired.

Byers tackled another person, straddled him and pinned him down. When he adjusted his night vision goggles, he found that was on top of another guard.

The American hostage later described the scene. The dark room suddenly filled with men and exploding gunfire. Narrow beams of light shot in every direction. Voices called out his name. Joseph answered, “I’m right here.”

Hearing English, Byers leaped across the room and threw himself onto the hostage, using his body to shield him from bullets. When another enemy fighter appeared, Byers pinned the fighter to the wall and held him until his teammates took action. It was over almost as soon as it began. In just minutes, by going after those guards, Byers saved the lives of several teammates and Joseph.

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In an effort to save Chief Petty Officer Nicolas Checque, the team member who had been shot, Byers, a certified paramedic, performed CPR during the 40-minute flight to Bagram Air Base, Obama said.

‘He died to bring back another American’

After Obama paid tribute to Checque at Monday’s ceremony, Byers praised his fallen friend.

“If it wasn’t for that team, I wouldn’t be standing here today. Specifically for me, my teammate, brother, friend, Nic Checque, the award is truly his. He was an American hero. He was the hero of that operation. He was killed during that operation. He died a warrior. He died to bring back another American. I believe our nation owes him a debt of gratitude. He lived his life as a warrior, and he carried out the toughest missions selflessly and fearlessly. He made the ultimate sacrifice that day,” Byers said.

Obama said Checque was awarded the Navy Cross, and he’s one of “70 members of the Naval Special Warfare community, 55 of them SEALs, who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice since 9/11.”

Joseph, who lives in Colorado, welcomed the news about Byers’ honor.

He told CNN that he was “thrilled that he is getting this accolade and being honored this way,” saying he was “more than worthy” of the award.

Byers “gave me a second chance in life,” he said.

At the time of Joseph’s rescue, the United States believed a Taliban commander was on his way to take custody of Joseph and move him into Pakistan, Obama revealed Monday.

Byers is the 11th living service member to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan. Dozens of friends, family members and special operators joined the Ohio native at the ceremony.

Two of the five other SEALs who earned the Medal of Honor were among the crowd. Obama singled out Vietnam veterans Tommy Norris and Mike Thornton, who sat next to each other and joined their hands after the President called their names.

Byers, 36, joined the Navy in 1998 as a corpsman and has been assigned to various SEAL teams.

“Even if he had never performed the actions for which he is being recognized here today, Ed Byers would be long remembered for his compassion, his sacrifice and his endurance: 11 overseas deployments, nine combat tours, recipient of the Purple Heart twice, Bronze Star with valor five times,” Obama said.

CNN’s Ryan Browne, Barbara Starr and Eliott McLaughlin contributed to this report.