An interview with retired Navy SEAL Edward C. Byers, Jr., on the role faith played through combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a young Navy medic in SEAL training, Edward Byers Jr. covered his barrack room with notes — reminders of his daily goals: Did you work out today? Did you run? Did you swim? And set in capital letters: DID YOU PRAY TODAY?
Byers’ Catholic faith strengthened him as he pursued his dream to become one of the Navy’s elite special operators. He was assigned to his first SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) team in 2004 and later served with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. During his 21-year career, he deployed overseas 11 times, including multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And through those years of war, he continued to make time for prayer, seeking God’s protection and peace.
He prayed Dec. 8, 2012, as he and his team hiked in darkness toward a Taliban compound in the mountains of Afghanistan. Their mission was to rescue an American doctor who had been kidnapped. Byers prayed again at the end of mission, over his brother SEAL, Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque. The doctor was safe, but Checque had been mortally wounded.
For his heroic actions that night, Byers became the first living SEAL since the Vietnam War to receive the U.S. military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor. President Barack Obama bestowed the medal on Byers in a White House ceremony attended by Byers’ wife, Madison, and daughter, Hannah, in February 2016.
Byers retired from active duty September 19 as a master chief and is now pursuing a master of business administration degree at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. As a board member of the Medal of Honor Foundation, he also travels throughout the nation to promote the virtues embodied by the medal. He likewise serves on the honorary board of the Navy SEAL Foundation and the advisory board of the C4 Foundation, charities that support SEALs and their families.
Byers joined the Knights of Columbus in Virginia last year and spoke with Columbia on September 29, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel.
COLUMBIA: Can you tell us a little about your family and your faith background?
MASTER CHIEF EDWARD C. BYERS JR.: I grew up in northern Ohio on a small farm in a town called Grand Rapids. My parents divorced when I was 5 years old. They both had children from previous marriages, and my siblings are much older than me. I lived with my father, who was Catholic, but my faith really stemmed in large part from my brother-in-law, Trevor, who is now a permanent deacon. When I was still in grade school and he was dating my sister, he introduced me to the Latin Mass and had a big impact on me, drawing me to the faith.
COLUMBIA: What led you to choose a career in the Navy and train to be a medic?
BYERS: My father was in the Navy at the very end of World War II. He never really talked about his time in the service, but we were a very patriotic family. The American flag was always flying outside, and the Fourth of July was probably the most celebrated holiday of the year.
When I was in junior high in the early ’90s, a lot of books and movies on Vietnam and the Navy SEAL community started coming out. I became fascinated with the concept of an elite, mythical group of guys doing really incredible and dangerous things.
By the time I was a senior, I knew I was going to join the military. School was never really a priority. My father was a carpenter and had a small general contracting company, so I would have done construction if I didn’t join the military.
Becoming a medic was my mother’s idea. If I didn’t like the military, she said, I would have something to fall back on in the civilian world.
After I joined as a Navy hospital corpsman, I learned that the SEAL community was over-manned and deferring corpsmen who wanted to try out. I had joined to be a SEAL, so the closest thing was to go with the Marines. That’s how I started off.