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Hometown hero talks of war, service, community

TONTOGANY — When Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers was first invited to return to his alma mater at Otsego High School, he wanted to find a way to enact positive change in the Otsego school district.

The 1997 graduate and Medal of Honor recipient told a more than 200 attendees he hopes the new Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s Character Development Program helps to pay forward what he received from the community.

President Barack Obama presents Navy Senior Chief Edward Byers, Jr., with the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House last year. Mr. Byers is a 1997 Otsego High graduate. “I hope you take care of this, and cultivate this,” he said of the program, which takes the traits displayed by and honored in Medal of Honor recipients — courage and sacrifice, commitment and integrity, citizenship and patriotism — and instills them in students.

He also announced the Edward Byers Awards for Exceptionalism and Heroism, which will honor local students who prove themselves in academics, extracurricular activities, and acts of courage.

“The goal of this is to bring back a sense of community,” he said.

Chief Byers was awarded the Medal of Honor last February. In December, 2012, he was part of a team that rescued an American hostage from the Taliban in Afghanistan.

He returned to his alma mater Thursday to share stories and reflections on his military service, and the community that raised him.

“For any person to achieve their best, it takes a village,” Chief Byers said.

Chief Byers told of that hostage rescue, recounting the extraordinary events that earned him the nation’s highest military honor.

He was part of a team that entered the Taliban compound, taking gunfire from the enemies inside. His teammate, Chief Petty Officer Nicolas Checque, was struck by an enemy gunshot. Chief Byers followed in and successfully rescued an American doctor, Dr. Dilip Joseph, who had been taken hostage three days earlier.

Of all the action that unfolded that night, Chief Byers remembers seeing CPO Checque receiving medical treatment, and instantly beginning to say Hail Marys.

“I was praying for the repose of his soul,” Byers told the audience.

He discussed a wide range of topics, including the recent fame of SEAL Team 6, how his life has changed since receiving the medal, and what it was like to get a call asking if he was able to speak to the President.

“Does anyone actually say ‘no’ to this?” he asked himself before President Barack Obama came on the line.

He is still on active duty with the Navy but can’t share any details. Beyond that, though, many things have changed since that hostage rescue in Afghanistan.

My life has been disconnected from the outside world,” he said, citing his newfound role as ambassador for the country.

Sadie Helberg, a sophomore at Otsego High School, was excited to hear the stories of a local hero firsthand.

“We hear a lot about him at school,” she said. ”He did something extraordinary.”

Chief Byers said he is still getting used to being a somewhat public figure. "This is a very humbling event," he said. "I'm still getting used to wearing clothes like this."

Contact Zack Lemon at: zlemon@theblade.com, 419-724-6282, or on Twitter @zack_lemon.