A Rare Breed

The death of Osama bin Laden is one of those events where we all remember where we were when we heard about it. But unfortunately, although we learned US Navy SEALs conducted the raid, we only knew the name of one of the operators that night; Cairo, the Belgian Malinois.

Of course, Cairo wasn’t there all by himself; he had a bit of help from his human friend Will Chesney.

Will and Cairo. Photo courtesy of the United States Navy

A couple of years ago, Navy SEAL Will (Cheese) Chesney wrote a book about his best friend, Cairo. “No Ordinary Dog” ( co-written with Joe Layden) first came on the market in April 2020. It garnered almost universal praise, 4.9 out of five stars on Amazon and another 4.9 out of five on Audible.com. People love a good dog story and a good war story, and “No Ordinary Dog” is both.

Chesney’s book is a tribute to his four-footed friend, who sadly had to be put down in April 2015 because of inoperable cancer. He still keeps the bloodstained harness Cairo wore on the bin Laden raid. His ashes are kept in a place of honor.

The book begins:

“Cairo was my dog. And I was his dad. I don’t use that term euphemistically. The relationship between a handler and a canine SEAL is profound and intimate. It goes well beyond friendship and the usual ties that bind man to dog. The training is experiential and all-encompassing, a round-the-clock immersion designed to foster not just expertise but an attachment of uncommon depth and complexity.”

A very good boy. Screenshot from YouTube and The Reserve Label

Chesney joined the Navy in 2002, but it wasn’t until 2006 that he became familiar with military working dogs following a training demonstration in Kentucky. Back in 2008, when Chesney was still looking to find his niche on the Teams, he said, “It always seemed to me that the bad guys feared our dogs more than they feared us, and maybe with good reason.” Iraqis, as a generality, tend to look at dogs as a nuisance at best and a safety hazard at worst. Rabies was rampant in dogs in the country, and Saddam Hussein encouraged killing of stray dogs to help remove the threat. One of the unintended consequences of our 2003 invasion was the estimated 1 million homeless dogs that multiplied in Baghdad as a consequence of the cessation of typical public services in the city. As a result, packs of dangerous stray dogs roamed the city streets.

Chesney was selected to be a dog, or military working dog (MWD) as they are called, handler. He took his training quite seriously, realizing that these were not pets; they were instruments of war, just as he was. He’ll admit that Cairo was not his first choice to work with. He was interested in a dog named Bronco. Bronco was friendly and sometimes wanted to play. Cairo was more aloof and was all about work. After two weeks of working with both animals, Chesney realized that Cairo was special, but he was still not sold on him.

In his booties and doggles (doggy goggles), Cairo enjoyed a good tennis ball. Photo by Will Chesney.

As it turned out, a program director ended up assigning Cairo to Will. The man told him, “He’s the right dog for you.” And that was that. Shortly after, the pair went to a seven-week training camp in California. Within days, the two were sharing a bed. But, Chesney says, “I do recall pushing him off in the middle of the night for being such an aggressive snuggler and blanket hog.”

Cairo excelled at his training: learning to move quickly and quietly, sniff out explosives and weapons, and learning to skydive. In 2009 Chesney and Cairo were deployed to Afghanistan. Chesney admits to being a bit worried about how Cairo would do in picking out the bad guys among the human shields the enemy placed among them. These were often women and children. As he explained to the New York Post, Chesney said, “A lot of the time, you yell at people to come out [of a house], and the men and women will leave their infants inside — maybe hoping that we hurt or kill the babies so that they can use that against us.”

FWIA

Will clearly recalls one particular summer night in 2009 in Afghanistan. It was June 30, and the SEALs were engaging targets in a woodline hundreds of meters away. Chesney unleashed his canine, and Cairo quickly sped off after the bad guys. Finally, he cleared a four-foot stone wall and disappeared from sight. Immediately afterward, the SEALs heard several rounds of small arms fire. Chesney immediately called out to Cairo to return. Slowly, the dog limped back toward his handler and then collapsed into a pile, breathing heavily. He had been shot in the chest and front leg and was bleeding out. He had to walk the whole way around that stone wall in pain, as he could no longer jump it.

A medic tended to his wounds immediately, and the call “FWIA” (friendly wounded in action) went out over the radio, requesting an immediate aeromedical evacuation. Cairo was MEDEVACED, with Will at his side, to the nearest medical treatment facility, where military doctors and nurses quickly performed life-saving surgery on him. Chesney remained with Cairo for the rest of the night, catching bits of sleep on the cold hospital floor. He says he knew Cairo would make it when he gave him a lick the following day.

Neptune Spear

Cut to March of 2011, and Cairo was now six years old and close to retirement. Will Chesney wasn’t just a Navy SEAL; he was a member of DEVGRU’s (aka SEAL Team Six) Red Squadron, and he got the call his Teammates had been waiting for for years. They were about to go after Osama bin Laden. Many believed it would be a one-way mission, as they didn’t envision the terrorist mastermind going down without a massive and bloody fight. When the time came to go, all of the men said their final goodbyes to loved ones without disclosing the nature of their mission. This was nothing new, but the target was. Chesney was well aware that bin Laden’s compound could be fraught with tripwires and explosive devices that could immediately mean the end to any one of them; such was the nature of Operation Neptune Spear.

On May 2, 2011, as a highly modified Black Hawk helicopter from the Army’s 160th SOAR stealthily whisked them across a sleeping Pakistan, Cheney sat on the floor of the aircraft with Cairo, clad in a kevlar vest and wearing doggie goggles, sitting calmly between his legs in the darkness. The first Black Hawk had a hard landing after skidding off the compound wall. The aircraft Cairo and Chesney were in landed safely.

Rex Specs dog goggles with canine vision system. Note the high-resolution camera lens between and above the canine’s eyes—an image from Popular Science and Rex Specs.

The pair jumped to the ground, and Chesney unleashed Cairo to search for explosives and possible escape tunnels. After doing two laps around the compound, he returned. All clear. They entered the house, helping to clear the first two floors. That’s when a SEAL coming down the stairs from the third floor said to them, “I don’t think they need the dog.” 

The Navy’s petty treatment of a SEAL who was on the Bin Laden mission

Read Next: The Navy’s petty treatment of a SEAL who was on the Bin Laden mission

“Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo!” had gone out over the radio, signifying that the man known to them by the codename “Crankshaft” was dead. Osama bin Laden was no more. By this time, all of the shootings and explosions had awakened the locals, and they understandably wondered what was going on. Cairo was taken outside to work crowd control while the rest of the SEALs grabbed computer hard drives and what other intelligence they could before getting the hell out of Dodge.

Thirty-six hours later, all of the SEALs on the mission, including Cairo, were meeting with the President of the United States. Cairo’s was the only name released that night when the public wanted to know who conducted the raid. He was instantly famous and was kept on a military base. Chesney would later be redeployed without him. Over time, he developed signs of PTSD, depression, and severe migraine headaches and began drinking heavily. The only thing that seemed to make him feel better was visiting Cairo.

When 2013 rolled around, the Navy announced that Cairo would be retiring. Chesney wanted the dog to come live with him, but so did at least two other men. Chesney became so stressed at this thought that he later revealed he had plans to kidnap Cairo. He even bought an old motorcycle with a sidecar to give Cairo rides. “I felt like he needed me,” Chesney wrote in his book, “and I sure needed him.”

All Good Things…

Cairo eventually got to have a bunch of sidecar rides, and it sure seems he enjoyed them. Photo courtesy of Will Chesney.

It took a long year of waiting for approval, but Cairo finally got to go home with Will. The two spent tons of quality time together, hanging out on the couch, watching movies, eating steaks, and going for long motorcycle rides. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long. Cairo developed cancer, and his quality of life deteriorated. He had to be put down on April 2, 1015. Will was right there holding Cairo’s paw until the very end.

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