Danny Byrd gets medal for heroism


The Navy refers to him as Capt. Lauchlin D. Byrd IV, Navy & Marine Corps Medal recipient for heroism, Marine, pilot, lifesaving first-aid and critical care provider.

Byrd recently received the medal for saving the lives of two fellow pilots; he pulled them from a burning Cobra gunship that had just been bombed by a Harrier jump jet during a training mission in Iraq.

The Navy and Marine Corps Medal is not awarded for saving the life of another; it is awarded for distinguished acts of heroism despite life-threatening risk to the Marine who receives it.

In short, Byrd is a true American hero; but in Sarasota and Port Charlotte, he is simply Danny.

Byrd's roots run deep. Grandparents Dan and Daisy Byrd owned New Pass Bait & Tackle Shop, sometimes known as Daisy's Place, remembered decades later for serving some of the best burgers in the South.

Byrd's father, Lauchlin D. Byrd III, Dan to his friends, is well known for his service in Vietnam. Dan guarded ammunition dumps, Nike Hercules Missile Bases and Air Defense Bases from Lackland, Texas, to Bung Tau, Vietnam; but he always knew that he and his wife, Flora, would return to Sarasota to rear their sons. His love of the water and law enforcement brought him home to Port Charlotte, where he served as supervisor for the Florida Marine Patrol.

In fifth grade, Danny developed a passion for drums. His music instructor, Linda Mann, suggested that Danny had a gift for music, so Dan and Flora bought him a complete drum set.

"He was really good about practicing, stubborn, almost," Dan said. "Danny and I are alike, we're both characters, real stubborn, we like to have fun, but we hate stupid -- especially Danny.

"If he sees something that doesn't make sense, he'll try to fix it.

"Not everybody appreciates that."

While in middle school, Danny saw the action movie "Top Gun." A small spark was ignited; Danny began to think about being a pilot.

"The summer before eighth grade, I decided I was a fat kid. I was tired of being the last kid picked for baseball and soccer," he recalled.

Danny got up from in front of the TV and went outside. He ran a block; the next day, two blocks. His nightly runs were soon up to a mile. As the notion of pilot training incubated, he continued to practice his drums.

At the tender age of 16, Danny met his future bride, Marisa Giuliano. It was love at first site for Danny; he worked as a bag boy, Marisa as a cashier, at Publix.

"I was at Port Charlotte High, Marisa was at Charlotte," he said. "We got married in 2001, but we've been together since high school."

Upon graduation, Danny received a music scholarship to the University of Southern Mississippi.

"Danny got to Southern Miss and started playing with the marching band," Dan Byrd recalled. "He's really good; he can play any type of percussion. He was touring with marching drum and bugle corps, flying all over the place and going to competitions from Pennsylvania to Texas."

Dan and Flora assumed that Danny had found his vocation and would become a professional drummer, or perhaps a music teacher.

After four years at Southern Mississippi, with one year until graduation, Danny called his father one evening and said, "Dad, I've joined the Marines!"

Danny met a Marine recruiter, "a really good guy named Master Sergeant Terry Hall," while working out. He had considered the Marines while in high school but felt "the timing wasn't right."

Now, the timing seemed perfect.

Dan and Flora were shocked, but after digesting the news, chose to fully support Danny. "We're a very patriotic family. I served my country in Vietnam, and we were so proud that Danny wanted to serve," Dan said.

Danny was sent to Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va. The scenery was beautiful, but "more humid than Florida," and the physical training was grueling.

The final component in this Marine's life fell into place and the discipline and intestinal fortitude necessary to pull fellow Marines out of a fire-engulfed cockpit was born in Quantico.

"The whole point is discipline," Danny Byrd said. "I developed discipline.

"I learned to iron, sew, make my bed -- things that most men don't learn. Folding clothes 'just so' became important," he continued. "I scrubbed floors with a toothbrush, I learned to listen to my sergeant instructors and get along with them.

"You can't let yelling bother you or get inside your head. You have to develop mental toughness. I get that from my Marine training, and my Dad."

After OCS, he returned to Southern Mississippi and completed his degree in music. "The last time I played drums was at my graduation recital," Danny said with a chuckle.

Danny thrived in the Marines, embracing Semper Fidelis, the Latin motto of the Marines that translates to "always faithful"; faithful to God, country, family and the corps.

Danny quickly dispels any notion of fear regarding his heroic actions on May 25, 2007. He briefly acknowledges that he jeopardized his own life. "First I heard the explosion, it twisted my helmet around and blew the goggles off of my face, so I just started running toward the Cobra. Heard the beep (that indicates the release of a bomb), the ordinances started going off and I knew that I had to get to the pilots."

Having just landed, Danny was tethered to his Huey by a 3-foot gunner's belt. When he reached the end of the belt it jerked him to the ground. He tore the belt off and ran for the Cobra, by now engulfed in flames.

"The skin of the aircraft was gone; all I could see was fire and framework," Danny Byrd recalled. He quickly returned to his Huey for a fire extinguisher and charged through the fire. "It happened so fast, I remember the smell of the fire, a sweet burn smell, not like a wood fire."

He saw one pilot emerge from the flames and stumble toward the tail rotor. Snatching him out of the path of the flaming tail rotor, Danny pushed him down and toward Master Gunnery Sgt. Greg Staggs. Danny peered through the inferno, 20-millimeter rounds deafening him, shaking the ground. He said he saw "something moving inside, I yelled 'there he is' and ran to the other side of the aircraft. I kept calling his name, Ryan. The hellfire was cooking off, shooting seven feet in the air, rockets shooting off, ninety degrees around me."

The young man speaks very quietly, "I put myself between the hellfire and Ryan and grabbed him and rolled him over. His leg was blown off below the knee, his left side was burned all over, he was covered in blood. Was I scared? No, I don't remember being scared; I just knew that I needed to get Ryan out of there. It never occurred to me to do anything but get the pilots out of there ASAP."

Danny saved the lives of Capt. Ryan Voltin and Lt. Col Robert Curtis that night. He tended to Capt. Voltin until he could be airlifted to a Level 5 trauma unit. Both pilots survived their injuries and have safely returned to Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Danny is proud of the medal for heroism, but at the same time, "Ryan is a good friend of mine. I was honored to receive the medal, but I'd rather not have Ryan injured. He's going to have to learn to fly with one leg, he's a career guy."

Danny Byrd is currently serving his country abroad, his fourth tour overseas.

"I've just submitted my letter to extend; I want to make the Marines my career," Danny said. "The camaraderie is great. I have friends all over the world and I'm part of an organization that allows me to help my country and feel proud of what I do."