PLANKINTON — Students from three schools and members of the public gathered to hear stories and advice from someone who knows about courage, patriotism, integrity and commitment.
Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward C. Byers, Jr., was on hand Tuesday in the Plankinton High School gymnasium to share his experiences ranging from his early life to the mission to rescue an American citizen captured by hostile forces in Afghanistan in 2012. That mission earned him the Medal of Honor, the highest and most prestigious military honor awarded to recognize members of the military who have distinguished themselves by acts of valor.
Byers spent part of the day in Plankinton, speaking by invitation at Aurora Plains Academy and the Plankinton High School gymnasium, as well the Commerce Street Grille for an evening presentation sharing his life story and experiences. Students from Corsica-Stickney, Plankinton and Mount Vernon were on hand for the afternoon session.
Byers told the approximately 400 gathered at the presentation that it was a long road from where he started in life to where he arrived after 22 years of service in the United States Navy.
“I was overweight. I wasn’t popular,” Byers told those in attendance.
He grew up in a single-parent household in Ohio. Grades and schooling were not a high priority for him, and while military service was respected in his family and the community in general, it was not necessarily seen as honorable as it is in today’s world.
But eventually, Byers was drawn to the military, something he said many of his friends and acquaintances were skeptical about. They weren’t sure he could find success in the armed forces.
“What I wanted to accomplish was something nobody thought I could do,” Byers said.
But he continued on. He entered the United States Navy and eventually underwent training to become a member of the Navy SEALS, the famed special forces unit known for conducting dangerous missions around the world. That training would test him to his limits, he said, and eventually led him to the mission in December 2012 that saw his team trying to bring home a captured American hostage.
The objective was to rescue Dr. Dilip Joseph, an American citizen, who was abducted by hostile forces along with his driver, and Afghan interpreter. As members of Byers’ team approached the compound where Joseph was being held, one member of his team was shot and killed. Byers later located and jumped on top of Joseph, shielding him from harm during the operation.
As Byers told the story in detail to the assembled crowd, he noted the incident took about a minute. But that minute changed his life, both in the sense of accomplishing the mission, but also in the loss of his brother in arms.
Byers described his years of training prior to that mission as grueling, but an excellent test of his endurance and dedication to his fellow Navy SEALs. It can also serve as an example for students and the overall public on staying the course when times are difficult. The training is meant to break you down, he said, and those in charge watch for when a change occurs.
“They’re waiting to see when you stop thinking about yourself, and when you start thinking about your teammates,” Byers said.
Not everyone makes it through that training. Some candidates for the SEALs find the physical and psychological pressures of the unit to be too demanding, and they leave the program, often to serve in other areas of the military. Byers agreed the training is intense, but he stayed the course.
He emphasized characteristics he felt were crucial to his success in life, and could be useful to anyone looking to advance in their chosen field, whatever that may be. The lessons found in courage, patriotism, integrity, sacrifice and citizenship are invaluable character assets that he found in the best examples of his unit, and knew the students and others in attendance could benefit from those characteristics, as well.
He is proud of his service, but he also said he chooses to remain humble, courteous and respectful of his fellow citizens, something the entire country could benefit from and something he encouraged all in attendance to do as well. In a world that often focuses on negativity, a positive and can-do attitude can go a long way in having someone see their goals to fruition.
“I choose to be this way,” Byers said.
Even among successful missions, there will be shortcomings. Byers thinks often of the SEAL team member who died on that raid, a reminder that even during successful missions, there can and often will be tragedy. But perseverance in the face of adversity will always make one a valuable team member.
Byers said he found success through that perseverance, and getting back up when something knocked him down. He did it many times as a SEAL. His fellow teammates did it many times during their time in the service. And he stressed to those in attendance Tuesday that they should always strive to pick themselves back up when times get tough.
“If you get knocked down, because you will get knocked down, get back up again. Never stop doing that,” Byers said.