WASHINGTON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday awarded the country's highest honor for valor to Navy SEAL Edward Byers, who used his body to shield an American hostage from gunfire during a rescue operation in Afghanistan.
Byers, 36, was the sixth Navy SEAL to receive the Medal of Honor and 11th living service member to be awarded the honor for actions in Afghanistan.
Obama said the White House ceremony for Byers offered a rare public opportunity to acknowledge the work of the military's special operations forces, who often serve in the shadows.
"We may not always hear of their success, but they are there in thick of the fight, in the dark of night, achieving their mission," Obama said. "We sleep more peacefully in our beds tonight, because patriots like these stand ready to answer our nation's call and protect our way of life, now and forever."
Byers, who joined the Navy in 1998 and has been deployed overseas 11 times, washonored for his actions during a December 2012 mission to rescue Dilip Joseph, an American doctor taken hostage in Afghanistan.
Held in a remote valley, in a small single-room building surrounded by the Taliban, Joseph had been told by his captors the Americans were not coming for him.
"Well, they were wrong," Obama said.
Byers and his team moved under the cover of darkness to the building where Joseph was held, but were spotted by a guard when they were about 25 meters (yards) away, according to an account on the Navy's website.
The SEALs rushed to the doorway and Byers ripped down the six layers of blankets that covered the entryway. Another member of Byers' SEAL team, Chief Petty Officer Nicolas Checque, entered the building and was immediately shot. Checque later died from his wound.
When Byers entered the building, he engaged in hand-to-hand combat with one guard, then flung his body on top of Joseph to shield him from the firefight in the room.
While shielding Joseph, Byers fought with another guard and was able to pin him to the wall.
"In just minutes, by going after those guards, Ed saved the lives of several teammates - and that hostage," Obama said.
(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Peter Cooney)