His actions on a hostage rescue mission were "courageous" and "above and beyond the call of duty," according to the U.S. military.
But Edward C. Byers Jr. doesn't see it that way. "I don't view myself as being different than anybody else out there. I am just a person that's worked hard in life," he told ABC News. "And I've been fortunate enough by the grace of God to achieve those goals."
The humble Navy SEAL was awarded the Medal of Honor today by President Obama at a ceremony at the White House. Byers is only the 11th living service member to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan.
"Ed is defined by a deep sense of humility, he doesn’t seek the spotlight, in fact he shuns it," the president said. "I imagine there are a lot of other places he'd rather be than in front of all these cameras. Back in Coronado for another Hell Week, holding his breath under dark frigid water, spending months being cold wet and sandy," Obama joked.
Though Byers downplays the events of Dec. 9, 2012, his performance was nothing short of remarkable. That night, according to senior officials, Navy SEAL Team 6 was called upon to rescue American hostage Dr. Dilip Joseph, the executive director of Morningstar Development, an organization that was establishing hospitals in rural Afghanistan. Joseph was taken hostage by the Taliban and held for five days before the operation.
"We had a four or five hour hike through some pretty arduous terrain," remembered Byers. When his unit approached the building where they believed Joseph was being held, Byers' teammate, petty officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque, moved in first and was gravely wounded. Byers immediately followed behind Checque. Byers saw a person moving across the room and moved to tackled him, putting himself in serious danger.
"I didn't know whether that person was a hostage or if it was an enemy. I was able to straddle him, pin him down with my knees," Byers said. In the meantime, the doctor, sitting just a few feet away from Byers, called out, identifying himself. So Byers reacted again, continuing to pin down the militant while simultaneously protecting Joseph.
"I engaged the person I was on top of and I jumped on the American hostage, and I did that because we’re wearing body armor and you want to protect them from any other potential dangers," he explained. "Now we’re laying down on the ground and once I did that, there was another person, another enemy that was in the corner, just within arms’ reach of me, so I was able to pin him by the throat. And hold him there until our team was able to come in and take care of that threat."
Five Taliban militants were killed in the ensuing firefight. As soon as the building was cleared, Byers, who originally enlisted in the Navy as a corpsman, or a Navy medical specialist, began treating Checque for his injuries. He continued to provide aid until the team was back at their base. Checque ultimately succumbed to his injuries.
In a memoir about that night, Joseph recounts hearing a SEAL, now known to be Byers, murmuring during the raid. When Joseph asked what he was saying, Byers responded that he was praying for his wounded soldier.
"I was praying over Nic," Byers confirmed. "I have a Catholic background, so my thought process is...I am praying for the repose of his soul and that God looks over him and that we will see him again in heaven. He died a warrior's death. He gave his life for the rescue of another American and to me, that represents the true nature of what a hero is."
As a Navy SEAL, Byers has been deployed eight times and served seven combat tours of duty. The details of the top secret team's missions are rarely made public. "My entire military career...I have lived a very quiet and discreet life," Byers acknowledged. But when he was told he was being awarded the Medal of Honor, he decided to come out of the shadows to share his story and serve as a representative of the Naval special warfare community.
"I become a representative of my brothers that I serve with and hopefully I can represent them in a manner they they believe is true to our nature, and that I don't let them down," he said.
Byers said it is also his goal to honor the sacrifice of his teammate, Nic Checque: "His name will be etched in the pages of history as a true American hero."
Byers said he looks forward to continuing his life's work with the SEALs, though it is likely that today's public ceremony will likely mean he will be in a different role. But for now, Byers is taking a short break to spend time with his wife, daughter and entire family.
"We don't get to that a lot. Due to the nature of our work, we are always gone. So it's a real testament to how powerful and strong our families are...I love them for that," Byers said.
"Even if he had never performed the actions for which he is being recognized here today, Ed would be remembered for his compassion, sacrifice, and endurance," said President Obama.
Byers, a native of Toledo, Ohio, has previously received a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, and the Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor device, among many other medals.