An interview with retired Navy SEAL Edward C. Byers, Jr., on the role faith played through combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
COLUMBIA: Of course, you did eventually apply and train to become a SEAL. What was that like?
BYERS: While I was with the Marines, I had to fill out a special request to go to BUD/S — Basic Underwater Demolition/ SEAL training. I had spent almost three years with the Marines, and then 9/11 happened. Four months later, my request to go to BUD/S training was approved. Off to San Diego I went.
SEAL training was the hardest I had pushed myself in my life, and there’s this self-doubt that creeps in. I distinctly remember a few times when, on the brink of breaking and wanting to quit, I would say little prayers like, “If this is something you want me to do, I don’t know how much more I can take. If I can just get a 30-second break, I think that would be enough for me to go on.” And next thing you know, the instructors would blow the whistle for us to take a break at a critical moment. I never will forget that.
COLUMBIA: What role has your faith played in your military service?
BYERS: When I entered the military, I was really diving into Catholic apologetics. This is right around the time that authors like Scott Hahn were writing books like Rome Sweet Home. I wanted to really understand the faith and be able to explain it to other people. So, when I was with the Marines, it was a deeply religious time in my life.
In our unit, a few of us who were Catholics would go to Mass together. My first deployment with them, my first time away from home, was in 2000. Not every ship has a priest, and I started leading prayer groups when the priests couldn’t get there for Mass. I created pamphlets that I passed out. We started to get a pretty good following from that.
You know, I believe a lot in being at the right place at the right time. For example, I remember porting in Dubrovnik, Croatia, where we were doing a month-long exercise with the Croatian army and staying in old barracks. I picked a bunk at random and when I lay down, I saw a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary staring down at me from the bunk above. I took it, and I still have that image today, framed in our house.
COLUMBIA: You have a particular devotion to St. Michael the Archangel. Can you say a word about that?
BYERS: War is not pretty, and it’s not kind. A lot of horrific things happen, things that impact you psychologically and emotionally.
So I really turned to St. Michael the Archangel, because he’s the patron saint of police and the military. The Prayer to St. Michael — “defend us in battle, be our protection” — really struck home for me.
During my very first deployment to Iraq, in 2005, we were walking up to a group of Navy SEALs that were leaving. I saw a guy wearing a colorful patch of St. Michael that said in Latin “Sancte Michael Ora Pro Nobis.”
I don’t know what compelled me, but I just walked right up to him and said, “That’s a really cool patch. Can I have it?” I don’t know who this guy was to this day, but without hesitation he just gave it to me and said, “It protected me while I was here, and I hope it does the same for you.”
I wore that patch on my uniform for every single operation I’ve ever been a part of.
COLUMBIA: Do you find it significant that the rescue mission for which you received the Medal of Honor coincided with the feast of the Immaculate Conception?
BYERS: That is something that gives me chills thinking about. By 2012, I had already been going to war for seven straight years. I was gone 280 to 300 days a year on average, and every single year there’s a deployment to a war zone. I had seen a lot of combat by then.
We were in a pretty remote region of Afghanistan, and access to church wasn’t readily available. So the feast day wasn’t something I was tracking at that time. It was only in the days afterward that I started to reflect.
There was also time to process the fact that we had just lost an incredible warrior and teammate, Nic Checque. He was right in front of me when that happened, and it could have easily been me. Only God knows why he was taken and I wasn’t. So you think about that and it’s humbling, to say the least.
I ask God, “What is your intent with me? Why am I still here?” I reflect on that a lot. I don’t believe in coincidences.
COLUMBIA: You have described the Medal of Honor as a “weight” as well as an honor. Can you elaborate?
BYERS: No one ever thinks they’re going to become a Medal of Honor recipient. Usually it’s given posthumously, for heroics the likes of which you can’t fathom.
So it really makes you take a step back and go, “Well, what is my purpose? What am I supposed to do with this exalted position?”
I see it as a chance to witness to my faith and give glory to God. I mention God and St. Michael at every single speech I give. I have an obligation to do that because of the graces I have received.
With any great honor comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes an aspect of burden. Receiving the Medal of Honor is a lifelong commitment.
There are only 71 living recipients, and our oldest is from World War II — Woody Williams is 96 years old. He’s been a recipient for 70-plus years, and he still travels around the country promoting the values of the Medal of Honor, which are sacrifice, integrity, patriotism, courage, commitment and citizenship.
I never thought in a million years that I would be retiring at 40. I thought I would be a SEAL for 30 years. But it basically became too difficult to honor the duties of a Medal of Honor recipient and also be an effective SEAL — there is an unwritten rule that once you become a recipient you can no longer go into combat. So receiving the medal prevented me from doing the job that I loved doing.
And with the commitments of being a recipient comes a constant reminder of those who sacrificed — Nic Checque, and many other brothers and teammates too.
I have a responsibility to recognize the sacrifices of all those who had a role in my becoming a recipient. I just was in the right spot at the right time, doing the right thing. It could have easily been someone else, but it just happened to be me.
Nic Checque is the one who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and he did it heroically. There are lots of emotions that revolve around being a recipient and having to relive those memories all the time.
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