Will Chesney served 13 years with the Navy SEALS and SEAL Team SIX as an operator and Combat Attack Dog Handler. Will and his dog, a Belgian Malinois named Cairo, took part in hundreds of missions together, including Operation Neptune Spear, the mission that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Will has been awarded the Silver Star and a Purple Heart, stemming from injuries sustained during a grenade attack while out on a raid and now helps veterans who, much like himself have suffered the effects TBI (traumatic brain injury). Will is also the author of No Ordinary Dog: My Partner from the SEAL Teams to the Bin Laden Raid.
As a laid back teenager and self-professed “ordinary kid from nowhere” looking to explore the world beyond the confines of East Texas, Will decided early on that he would enter the military, he enlisted in the Navy at 17 with the single-minded focus of becoming a Navy SEAL. And, although he did not have the qualities normally associated with U.S. Navy SEALs, e.g. speed, strength, size, what Will did have was the one gift that makes surviving BUD/S training, Hell Week, and becoming an elite operator possible, he was incredibly resilient, and knew with every fiber of his being that he would make it because he would simply never, ever, quit, you would have to kill him first.
Will made it through BUD/S, received his Trident, and was assigned to SEAL Team 4. Will loved everything about his role as an operator on deployment, from the training and travel, through to the combat and fighting. However, Will wasn’t satisfied with simply being a SEAL, he wanted to push the envelope and qualify as a member of the elite counterterrorist unit SEAL Team Six, officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. DEVGRU chose their members from the best of best SEALs and subjected them to a selection process equally as difficult as BUD/S, however, as opposed to being designed to push the recruits to quit, SEALTeam Six selection is designed to test a SEALS abilities and push them to the limits of your potential. Will succeeded and became a shooter in the Navy’s Tier One special missions unit and was now tasked with hunting the world’s most dangerous insurgents, criminals, and terrorists.
While on deployment with SEAL Team Six, Will had an opportunity to work closely with combat attack dogs (CADs), Belgian Malinois that are trained specifically to operate with the SEALs and are ingrained in their deployment as integral members of the team. The breed is more compact, muscular, and agile than the German Shepards typically used in law enforcement. Upon first witnessing the CADs performance on deployment, both in their ability to uncover IEDs and as manhunters, Will marveled at the CADs’ speed, strength, and agility, and saw first hand how their handlers, a Master at Arms (the Navy’s Military Police) worked them while on and off the battlefield, and how they became crucial to the effectiveness of many of the team’s raids and missions, and, most notably how these dogs saved the lives of his SEAL brethren, even sacrificing their own lives to save the operators they hunted with.
The Malinois did two things better than any other working dog, firstly, their immensely powerful sense of smell allowed them to sniff out IEDs, the improvised explosives that were a plague to so many on deployment, causing lost limbs and lives in ever-expanding numbers. Secondly, the breed are superlative manhunters, they are more powerful than a Shepard, yet have the speed of a Greyhound. When a Malinois was released from their handler’s grip and sent to ferret out an enemy combatant hiding in a building or the brush, these CADs can not only locate the target wherever they may be hiding, they attack with lightning-like swiftness, and with the force of a battering ram. The dogs are also trained to restrain themselves and not kill or attack vital parts of the anatomy, rather they are disciplined to the degree that even in the euphoric haze of bloodlust, they limit themselves to clamping down on the enemy’s arm or leg and either drag them out into the open or hold them until the SEALs can grab the perpetrator for interrogation.
While on deployment, Will spent time with two CADs that were paired with his squadron, Falco and Balto, enthralled with their abilities, he spent increasing amounts of time with the dogs and their handler, Frank, seeing how the CADs worked and how they trained. Upon learning that Frank would be relinquishing his role as Falco’s primary handler, and looking to explore the next frontier in special ops and take on a new challenge, Will, a dog lover who grew up with Rottweilers and Pit Bulls jumped at the chance to take on the role. This was no small decision, and one that most operators avoided, as this was double the responsibility you had as a SEAL, as a CAD handler, you still had all the duties one must carry out as an assaulter, along with the additional obligation of taking care of an exceptional, and highly trained, military working dog.
Unfortunately, Will never got a chance to work with Falco, the beloved animal was killed in action before Frank ended his deployment. The loss of Falco was palpable amongst the squadron, the dog was a loved member of the team and considered a brother, however, a new dog would find it’s way into Will’s unit, one that would change his life forever. Cairo was one of the most exceptional CADs to come out of his training group and displayed the unique quality prized most amongst these elite combat dogs, the ability to flip a switch and go from sinking their jaws into the enemy and being rewarded with the intoxicating taste of blood, yet having the discipline to release their captive on command. Cairo was also a majestic looking animal, and a loving, good-natured dog whose friendship had to be earned, and he and Will quickly bonded.
Will trained, handled and cared for Cairo and the two went on hundreds of missions together, it didn’t take long for Will to look at Cairo as he would his own child and they became inseparable. However, much like their SEAL handlers CADs are not indestructible, and Cairo came as close to losing his life as was possible when Will and his team chased a group of Taliban fighters fleeing a bomb-making operation. WIll released Cairo to hunt them down, however when enemy gunfire rang out and Cairo did not respond to his repeated commands to return, Will knew in his bones that something was wrong. After what seemed like forever, Cairo found his way back to Will, but upon reaching his master, the dog collapsed, Cairo had been shot in the chest and the leg, and it looked dire. A medic on the team reacted immediately, just as urgently as if one of their SEAL brothers had been mortally wounded, and triaged Cairo, stuffing bandages in the bullet holes and calling in a helo to medivac Cairo and Will back to base where he was operated on by surgeons who did not think twice about working to save Cairo’s life, even though they had never operated on animals before. Miraculously, Cairo survived the operation and within days was up and walking, a testament to the strength and power of these extraordinary dog.
Cairo, against the odds, would go on to redeploy, even with his injuries he was a formidable CAD, and was so revered that when one of the most historic missions in SEAL team history was given the green light, Wil and Cairo were called upon to take part in the operation to take down Osama Bin Laden. Will and Cairo trained with an assortment of SEAL Team Six’s best shooters for weeks prior to infiltrating Bin Ladin’s compound. So dangerous was the operation that would see them infiltrate Pakistani airspace and enter a makeshift fortress most likely rigged to blow in the event of a raid, that upon hearing the news he and Cairo were tasked with capturing or killing UBL, Will’s first thought was that they would not be making it out alive, but if not, that the sacrifice would be worth it if they got Bin Ladin.
The historic mission, dubbed Operation Neptune Spear, was a success by all measures, even in the face of SNAFUs and one of the Helo’s going down inside the compound, Bin Laden was eliminated, a huge cache of files and data were recovered, and no SEALs were killed. Still, even as the team exfilled to Bagram Air Base, Will wasn’t sure if they would make it out of Pakistan alive, and the feeling of having achieved victory did not sink in until the team was finally all gathered together in the Hanger at Bagram, watching President Obama announce live to the world that the mission had been a success, all while Bin Laden’s body and exploded face lay on the floor at the feet of the SEALs that had delivered justice to so many of the terrorist’s victims. Even more surreal than watching the Commander in Chief announce the highly secretive nature of their mission to the world within hours of its completion, Presiden Obama wanted to meet not just the members of SEAL Team Six who were responsible for the operation’s success, in particular, he wanted to meet Cairo. Will and the other SEALS not only received a visit from the President, where he spoke about there heroism, but Obama would also take time to meet with Will and Cairo privately, take pictures, and congratulate the both of them.
As thrilling the ride, and exhilarating the journey, no matter how good Will and Cairo were at what they did, and no matter how much they loved it, there was a price to pay for their victories, one that very few (if any) combat vets escape. Shortly after the Bin Laden raid, the biggest disaster in SEAL team history occurred when Extortion 17, a helicopter carrying 25 of Will’s brothers from SEAL Team Six (among others) was blown out of the sky by a Taliban RPG. The devastating loss took its toll on Will, who turned to alcohol to deal with his grief, while the stress of multiple deployments, concussive blasts, and the deaths of so many friends led to his hair falling out in clumps and his fingernails falling out. His stress and sorrow were later compounded by a traumatic brain injury after being hit with a grenade that left him in a mind-jarring haze, the effects of which led to crushing migraines which made his job as a shooter impossible. After being moved into a role off the battlefield, and with Cairo nearing the end of his career as an MWD, Will put in for his medical retirement. Years would pass as he waited to be discharged, all while continuing to suffer through pounding headaches and a panoply of drugs that had numerous unwelcome side effects, this in addition to bouts of memory loss and depression … to say the healing process was not going well would have been an understatement.
The one part of Will’s recovery that did seem to help was Cairo, who he would visit daily at the kennel on the base in Virginia where he worked. Will needed Cairo in his life and sought to make it permanent, and applied to adopt Cairo at the appropriate time, however, the Navy held on to Cairo far longer than they normally would a CAD given his notoriety as the SEAL Combat Dog famous for his role in the Bin Laden raid. After an onerously extensive process that lasted years longer than it should have, Cairo finally came to live with Will, and it could not have been at a better time, as Will was in pain, depressed, and on multiple medications that were only making him feel worse … Cairo’s reentry into Will’s life full time was a Godsend.
After welcoming Cairo into his home, it turned out that not only was Will dealing with the psychological scars of battle, Cairo appeared to be suffering the effects of PTSD as well while attempting to transition to the quite, sheltered life of a house pet after spending much of his life as a combat attack dog in a war zone. The unflappable combat attack dog was now reduced to a neurotic mess at the sound of a thunderclap, sending Cairo, who had previously hunted armed terrorists while Hellfire missiles exploded nearby, quivering, panting and hiding under the table. Although the many years of war and fighting had a deleterious effect on the once rock steady Cairo, WIll and his girlfriend Natalie comforted him and slowly helped Cairo adjust as best as possible to the unexpected cadence of civilian life. Together, over time, Will and his dog healed and found some sense of normalcy, and although Cairo died a few years later after a tough time battling cancer, his impact on Will has had a lasting effect. To this day Will carries Cairo’s ashes with him wherever he travels.
Will and Cairo were more than partners or even brothers in the SEAL teams, they were lifelong friends who saved each other’s lives, both during and after the war.