Humble, soft-spoken, unassuming. In the era of Goggins and Jocko, when the alpha male bravado still reigns supreme, these words would hardly be the first ones most would reach for when describing a Navy SEAL.
Will Chesney gives me no other option.
His tone is notably, markedly devoid of bravado. Feigned humility, also sometimes found in military elites, is also missing. What is there instead is a warm, east-Texas drawl, a softness in his voice, and a familiarity that makes him feel like an old friend from the first get-go.
Talking to him, I forget for a moment who I’m actually talking to. Certainly not the steel-nerved SEAL Team Six operator and dog handler who was on the Bin Laden Raid.
Instead, he’s just Will. He doesn’t say much about himself, at all; he’s telling me about his dog Cairo, an incredible Belgian Malinois who was his partner and best friend. I can see he misses Cairo with a depth and intensity that hasn’t waned in the 5 years since this special dog’s passing.
He decided to write this book, he says, in Cairo’s honor.
It was 2015, the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Will was in New York visiting the 9/11 Memorial; he had wanted to bring Cairo, but the dog who had in 2009 narrowly survived multiple gunshot wounds on a deployment to Afghanistan was not feeling up to the journey. Cairo stayed back in the hotel room, feeling sick and weak from the cancer that would soon claim his life.
It was a harrowing moment, looking at the jersey worn that night by his teammate Rob O’Neill. “I remember being grateful for the anonymity that the moment demanded,” Will recalls in his book, No Ordinary Dog: My Partner from the SEAL Teams to the Bin Laden Raid, out today. “I still have the bloodstained harness he wore the night he saved my life—and that he later wore during Operation Neptune Spear. It would be hard to part with that, but it would be a fitting tribute to Cairo if others had a chance to see it.”
He felt it was time to write the book and tell the story of Cairo’s life when he started to see misinformation about Cairo circulating on the internet. “People were saying things that weren’t true; people were saying that they had him. Cairo was a great dog. A really good boy, no matter what. I wanted people to know the real truth. The real story, and not just what somebody made up on the internet. He deserves that. It’s a huge piece of history; he took part in one of the biggest missions in history, and his name was in the media. He deserves to have his story told right, and I love talking about him.”
As eager as he is to talk about Cairo, there are other matters in the book that Will handles gently and is resolved not to share—such as the role of his best friend Nic Cheque, who was famously posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in the rescue of Dr. Dilip Joseph, the same night for which fellow SEAL Ed Byers would later earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. Though Nic appears once in the book for a clever prank he played on Will, Nic’s story is acknowledged respectfully but from a distance. “Nic’s story is not mine to tell,” says Will, “That is for his family if they ever choose to do so. And I’m not here to talk about myself, either. Nic was a far better operator than I ever was, anyway. This book is about one person, and that is Cairo.”
Though this will probably come as no surprise to other military or law enforcement dog handlers, to Will and his teammates, Cairo was, indeed, a person. A brother and full-fledged member of their team who Will refers to in the book as both “a canine SEAL” and a “soldier.” I mention to Will that I noticed this. “Oh, he was a part of the team,” Will says. “We were one big family. We do everything together as brothers; we die for each other, and Cairo is no different. He went through his K9 training just like we went through our SEAL training. He risked his life every night just like we were, so he was a part of the family.”
No Ordinary Dog shows that this distinction follows SEAL dogs both in life and in death. On an earlier deployment, before being paired with Cairo, Will shares the story of another team dog, Falco, who was KIA. “Falco saved some of our guys from getting at least injured and probably killed that night,” Will shares, “And when Falco passed, we did exactly the same ceremony back at the base as we would’ve done for any other fallen team member, human or canine.” After the team’s return stateside, Falco was memorialized with a plaque on the Team Room wall alongside the team’s other fallen brothers. The treatment, and the honor, are one and the same.
It is no wonder, then, that Will felt Cairo’s story needed to be written. Early in the book, he recalls a training he attended as a new SEAL. The trainer asked everyone in the room, “Raise your hand if your life has ever been saved by a dog.” 90% of the operators in that room, older and more seasoned than himself, raised their hands, Will recalls. It’s something that he hopes the book’s readers will recognize. “We could theoretically do our jobs without dogs like Cairo,” he reflects, “but we would lose a lot more people. That’s probably the most important message. These dogs are willing to sacrifice their lives for us, and it has happened multiple times. These dogs die for us. People need to know that.”
It is a sentiment that any human who has ever enjoyed a deep bonded connection with a dog can appreciate. And throughout the book, Will’s rendering of Cairo’s story makes it impossible for the reader not to share his affection for Cairo. “Some dogs, you can’t take home,” Will tells me. “They are working attack dogs, and you never know what they will do. But Cairo had that switch. He could put on the vest, go on target, and crush it; there is no doubt. Still, even after retirement, Cairo could lay on the couch with kids. He was gentle all the time. Never once a slip-up.” In the book, Will shares the story of a time Cairo was bitten by another dog in his home. Not at work, Cairo did not retaliate—despite the fact that there was an inches-long gash in his skin. “That was just who he was,” Will says. “I was really lucky to have him.”
The other stories about Cairo in the book are plentiful. His strength, undaunted courage, cleverness, affection, resilience, judiciousness, and instinct are notable. Cairo’s actions on the night of the Bin Laden raid are described in detail, though they are perhaps not even the most spectacular of this dog’s remarkable lifetime achievements. By every measure, Cairo most certainly deserves to be remembered as the American hero that he was.
When Will was eventually medically retired from the SEAL teams, he was fortunate to have Cairo come home with him. Suffering from the effects of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that he had sustained in combat, it was a difficult time for Will, and Cairo got him through. He writes, “Cairo cared for me when I needed him most when the emotional and physical scars of battle took a toll so heavy that I wasn’t sure I could handle it.” When I read that quote back to him, Will pauses. “People have service dogs for a reason. It was very beneficial to me having him home at that time, and taking care of him at the end of his life when he had saved my life in battle so many times—that was important to me.”
I read back to Will a quote from his book that, having recently lost my own dog of 14 years to cancer, I find to be profoundly moving. “You say that ‘buying a dog is like a small tragedy. You know on the very first day how it will all turn out.” I ask him to tell me more about that.
“It’s one of the most powerful lines in the book. And it’s so true. You know?” he tells me.
“I try to take every moment to remember that. I have other dogs now; another Malinois, Hagen, who has played a huge role in helping me get past Cairo’s death. I’ll put down my phone and interact with her. Just take every moment with her, because you never know how long it is going to last. I ended up losing Hagen unexpectedly young; she died at only 6 years old. You never know when that day is coming.”
“What part of your life can you not apply that lesson to? It’s true for every relationship that you care about. If that is the lasting message that Cairo leaves us, it transcends everything. Just be present in the relationships that you have.”
Coming from a man whose life’s work kept him on the edge for 13 years—at times nothing more than his friend Cairo between himself, his teammates, and certain death—it is a sobering reminder. While we face a current global pandemic, and our elders consider their own mortality, holding our loved ones a bit closer makes sense. Dogs included. “You never know when you are going to lose somebody,” says a man who called his father before leaving for the Bin Laden raid and told him, “I might not make it back from this one.” Now, says Will, “being a Navy SEAL made me a hugger. I always hug people and tell them I love them. You just never know if you are going to see them again.”
In an age when the American people are losing faith in their leadership by the day, when our loyalties are fiercely divided over party lines, and when the SEAL teams themselves have proven not to be immune to negativity and bad press, it is good to have a hero that we can all agree on. Cairo—and other military and law enforcement working dogs like him—are heroes of the unwavering loyalty and steadfastness that perhaps only a dog could fully muster. Cairo’s story helps us to remember that.
No Ordinary Dog is the powerful true story of Will, a SEAL Team Operator and military dog handler, and Cairo, the dog that saved his life. Available now wherever books are sold. You can get it on Amazon by clicking here!
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on April 21, 2020.
Dr. Atalanta is a writer, USA Boxing athlete, combatives instructor, philanthropist, and veterans’ advocate who is passionate about helping veterans tell their stories. Her latest project is an upcoming book with J.C. Glick, “Meditations of an Army Ranger,” but past clients have run the gamut from former SEAL Jeff Boss (author of “Navigating Chaos”) to the President of Floyd Mayweather’s $100m Money Team Brand. Dr. Atalanta is a sought-after commentator in the fight world on the topic of women’s personal defense, and she is available for booking as a Speaker-Buzz keynote speaker. For more information on how Dr. Atalanta might be able to help you turn your ideas into a book, please visit www.aliceatalanta.com.