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This image shows the cover of No Ordinary Dog by retired Navy SEAL Will Chesney and co-author Joe Layden.

This image shows the cover of No Ordinary Dog by retired Navy SEAL Will Chesney and co-author Joe Layden.Will Chesney, an “ordinary” high school student living in a Southeast Texas trailer park, had a big dream—to become a Navy SEAL. In a gripping autobiography, No Ordinary Dog, he chronicles his journey from enlistment through SEAL training and multiple deployments. Along the way, Chesney became a dog handler, with MWD Cairo as his four-legged partner. Yes, he was “dad” to the dog who served during the 2011 Osama Bin Laden raid.

A surprising book

The title and introduction suggest a story about a single military working dog, but this book covers wider territory. Told chronologically, the chapters contain a story within a story. The first thread relates to the Navy SEAL mindset.

Every SEAL—two-legged and four-legged—must have rock-solid self-control. “The SEALS want men who cannot only handle adversity but who will not let their emotions get in the way of completing a job,” explains Chesney.

For humans, this means compartmentalizing the bad stuff and setting it aside in order to maintain laser focus on the mission at hand. For military working dogs, this requires single-mindedly and fearlessly doing their job, amidst loud noise, chaos, and tempting distractions. Over time, the trauma of war can breach even the tightest compartmentalization.

The second thread, of course, explores the human-canine bond, particularly between Chesney and Cairo.

The book concludes with the two threads intertwined.

A seamless team

Chesney does not become a dog handler until Chapter 8, one-third of the way through the book. Readers watch the bond grow between Chesney and Cairo from the first meeting to complete trust—from early training to dangerous deployments.

The book describes the military’s procurement and training processes for military working dogs. It also covers the handlers’ learning curve, including the occupational hazards and challenges they face. The bruises and bites. The 24/7 demands of feeding, grooming, exercising, and training a dog, while also maintaining personal combat readiness. The logistics of deploying with a K9. And the complexity of skills such as fast-roping from a helicopter with a dog.

The narrative chronicles several missions, not just the Bin Laden raid, and details the harsh realities of war for both two- and four-legged service members. The sounds. The visuals. The loss.

This photo shows Will Chesney in uniform, kneeling beside MWD Cairo.

Will Chesney with MWD Cairo (Photo credit: United States Navy)


The catch-22 of a SEAL mindset

Resilience, perseverance, and focus carried Chesney through grueling months of SEAL training and eventual deployments. It kept him clear-minded during the Bin Laden raid and countless other missions.

As the book progresses, however, the very trait that seems most prized in a SEAL becomes problematic. How long can a person mentally set aside trauma and loss, before the images and feelings invade nighttime sleep and daytime functioning? How many explosions can concuss the brain before damage occurs?

“A decorated SEAL is not supposed to suffer from depression, because mental health issues are a sign of weakness, right? But that’s just bullshit.”


Will Chesney offers straight talk on PTSD and TBI 

“I understood the power of post-traumatic stress, the havoc it can wreak on your body as well as your mind, and the danger of pushing it all down inside to someplace where you think it can’t touch you. Except eventually it all boils up to the surface again,” says Chesney.

He describes his experience with PTSD in detail, including debilitating migraines. Doctors and specialists attempted to pinpoint the cause and find relief for the symptoms, to no avail initially. Play sessions with Cairo seemed to be the best medicine, providing temporary respites from the chronic pain and related depression.

Ultimately, Chesney adopted Cairo and provided his end-of-life care. The book ends in a bittersweet place, yet offers a sense of hope. No Ordinary Dog demonstrates the healing and redemptive nature of the human-canine bond.

Audience

Every public library needs this book, as well as high school and college libraries.

Family members and friends of veterans and active-duty military will benefit from reading it. Service members, past and present, will find things to relate to in Chesney’s story.

Anyone who studies history—particularly, regarding 9/11—will get a clearer portrait of what modern-day military deployment looks like. Most civilians today have no idea what the War on Terror has involved.

Mental health providers, doctors, and veterinarians will gain a more comprehensive picture of training, deployments, battlefield injuries and their aftermath, and the traumatic events and losses that two- and four-legged service members experience.

Will Chesney and co-writer Joe Layden have done a public service by sharing this story. It’s a fast-paced opportunity to understand more about today’s military and the role of K9s in keeping our service members safe. It’s a heart-felt tribute to the human-canine bond. But most importantly, it encourages people with PTSD and TBI to reach out for support.

“A lot of vets struggle with symptoms related to their service, and often they feel like they have to suffer in silence. Alone. I felt that way a lot of the time. But there is help, and I was fortunate to find it. I’d like to help others find it, as well.”


You can purchase the book here.

To learn how you can support currently-deployed military working dog teams, visit https://www.mwdtsa.org/.

 

February 2015 National Geographic cover "Healing Our Soldiers"

Credit: National Geographic

For more information on this exceptional piece, please follow this link:
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/healing-soldiers

The following is an excerpt from the February issue of National Geographic.  The full feature is available at nationalgeographic.com.

“THE INVISIBLE WAR ON THE BRAIN by Caroline Alexander

Brain trauma from blast force is the signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, afflicting hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat personnel. Although unseen, the damage strikes deeply into a soldier’s mind and psyche.

INSIDE THE PROTECTIVE BUNKER I waited with the explosives team, fingers wedged firmly in my ears. Outside, shot number 52, trailing a 20-foot length of yellow-and-green-striped detonating cord, was securely taped to the wall of a one-room plywood building with a steel fire door. There was a countdown from five, a low “pow,” and a dull thump in the center of my chest. The thump is the hallmark of blast. “You feel the thump,” one team member told me. “I’ve been in blast events where we’re actually hundreds or even thousands of feet away, and I still feel that thump.”

The mystery of what that thump does had brought me to a World War II bombing range some 40 miles southeast of Denver. Back then it was used to test half-ton ordnance; now it serves to study controlled explosives used by soldiers to blast holes through walls and doors in combat areas—standard practice in modern warfare. The eventual objective of these tests is to discover what that blast thump does to the human brain.”

All images are from the February issue of National Geographic magazine. MWDTSA watermark is applied to prevent unauthorized photo redistribution.

Picture of Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Tam with wife and baby

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Tam (Ret.)
Iraq 2004-05, 2007-08.
© Lynn Johnson/National Geographic

“Detonation happened, and I was right there in the blast seat. I got blown up. And all this medical study—nobody ever thought that they [blast events] were very harmful, and so we didn’t log them, which we should because all blast forces are cumulative to the body. On a grade number for me, it would probably be 300-plus explosions … I’m not going to not play with my children. I’m not going to let my injuries stop them from having a good life.”

Marine Cpl. Chris McNair sitting on his parents' porch, in full uniform, wearing a mask he made in therapy.

Marine Cpl. Chris McNair (Ret.)
Afghanistan 2011-12
© Lynn Johnson/National Geographic

Impeccable in his Marine uniform and outwardly composed, McNair sits on the porch of his parents’ home in Virginia, anonymous behind a mask he made in an art therapy session.

“I was just going through pictures, and I saw the mask of Hannibal Lecter, and I thought, ‘That’s who I am’ … He’s probably dangerous, and that’s who I felt I was. I had this muzzle on with all these wounds, and I couldn’t tell anyone about them. I couldn’t express my feelings.”

Army Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman wearing his half patriotic, half death head mask.

Army Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman
Iraq 2006-08
© Lynn Johnson/National Geographic

Wearing his mask—half patriotic, half death’s-head—Hopman confronts the battery of medications he takes daily for blast-force injuries he sustained while treating soldiers as a flight medic.

“I know my name, but I don’t know the man who used to back up that name … I never thought I would have to set a reminder to take a shower, you know. I’m 39 years old. I’ve got to set a reminder to take medicine, set a reminder to do anything… My daughter, she’s only four, so this is the only dad she’s ever known, whereas my son knew me before.”

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Tiffany H. wearing her blind eye and sealed lips mask.

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Tiffany H.
Iraq 2007-08, Afghanistan 2010-11
© Lynn Johnson/National Geographic

Tiffany H., as she prefers to be known, was “blown up” while helping women in a remote Afghan village earn additional income for their families. Memory loss, balance difficulties, and anxiety are among her many symptoms. The blinded eye and sealed lips on her mask.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert “Bo” Wester, wearing his mask made in therapy.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert “Bo” Wester (Ret.)
Iraq 2007, 2008-09, Afghanistan 2010
© Lynn Johnson/National Geographic

Suiting up before attempting ordnance disposal

“is the last line. There’s no one else to call … It’s the person and the IED … and if a mistake is made at that point, then death is almost certain. They call it the long walk because once you get that bomb suit on, number one, everything is harder when you’re wearing that 100 pounds … Two, the stress of knowing what you’re about to do. And three, it’s quiet, and it seems like it takes an hour to walk.”