Over the past decade, just about every detail of Operation Neptune Spear, the Navy SEAL raid that brought Usama bin Laden to justice, has been recounted. The service members involved, the elusive stealth Black Hawk helicopters, the quad NODs, have all become objects of intrigue and some have risen to iconic status. But one detail we all missed is the Rolex Submariner on the wrist of one of the operators. This detail surprised us here at W.O.E. Why was it worn on this raid? Was it for Escape and Evasion- a potential bartering tool? Was it chosen for its robustness as a mechanical timepiece, mitigating the risk of battery failure?
The answer is actually simple–but far more profound. The SEAL wearing the Sub, Will Chesney, believed he was going to die that night in Pakistan. Chesney reasoned that he might as well take his most meaningful watch with him for his final ride. He bluntly told W.O.E. that, “the watch would burn up with me.” Like many of the warriors on the helicopters that morning, Chesney thought they would either be shot down by the Pakistani air defense or blown up once inside bin Laden’s compound. He was acutely aware of the latter, as it was in part his job to mitigate that specific risk.
Cairo and Chesney training at the command in Virginia Beach (Photo Credit: Chesney)
Operation Neptune Spear, Abbottabad, Pakistan:
In the wee hours on May 2nd, 2011 Chesney rushed out of the helicopter just outside bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Locating bin Laden took almost ten years; ever since 2001 the US had been trying to track down his whereabouts. Finally, the time had come to strike. Chesney had two things he cherished with him: the Submariner on his wrist, but more importantly, one of the most important members of the team: a 70 lb Belgian Malinois named Cairo. Chesney humbly described his job as “babysitting” the highly trained combat assault dog, but the task was crucial. The duo screened the perimeter of the compound for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) before moving inside with the team to sweep the compound for explosives or hidden rooms. Like the men on the mission, Cairo was a seasoned operator with multiple combat deployments. In fact, the dog was shot twice during an operation in Afghanistan less than two years prior.
Media would quickly report on the presence of Cairo, including sensational claims that the dog had titanium teeth, one of the many inconsistencies that would lead Chesney to write a book, No Ordinary Dog, in an effort to document the history and honor the legacy of his best friend.
Red Squadron “Red Man” patch on Cairo’s vest, the same emblem engraved by the SEAL armorers on the Rolex Submariner's caseback.
The Rolex Submariner:
Like Cairo, the Submariner was no ordinary Rolex. It was a late 2000s no-date reference 14060, the last classic Submariner with the traditional aluminum bezel insert and drilled lugs. During a 2009 visit to the Command’s armorer, Chesney laser engraved the caseback with the “Red Man'' insignia of the famed Red Squadron, the same patch on Cairo’s harness.
Chesney acquired the Rolex as a present to himself when he passed screening for Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) in 2008. Chesney was aware of the history between Rolex and the SEAL Teams, but was ultimately drawn to the brand for what Rolex represented; it was a reliable and “cool” piece. Chesney grew up in a trailer park in Southeast Texas where, like most places around the world, Rolex stood out as a particular luxury.
The Rolex Submariner reference 14060, Chesney’s Trident and a metal tin containing the ashes of Cairo. (Photo Credit: Chesney)
Rolex- The Symbol of Achievement:
For decades, men have memorialized professional accomplishments with the purchase of a Rolex, be it a promotion, the closing of a big deal, or retirement. Chesney was no different. Only this “professional accomplishment” that Chesney achieved in 2008 was passing “selection” and being accepted into SEAL Team Six. Chesney was one of the youngest SEALs to make it through the 50-60% attrition rate. The “Training Team” screens for the “best of the best” SEALs and like the others trying out for the Command, Chesney had multiple prior combat deployments with SEAL Team 4.
Chesney and Cairo on a helicopter in Afghanistan. (Photo Credit: Chesney)
After Chesney completed the selection, he visited a Rolex Authorized Dealer in Virginia Beach and quickly settled on the no-date Submariner, purchasing it new and walking out with it that same day.
In contrast to those we have previously profiled, the Submariner was not a daily wear and with the exception of the bin Laden raid, he did not wear it operationally. Chesney reserved the timepiece for special occasions, which included traveling to and from every deployment. He would wear it on the plane, but once he arrived in Afghanistan, he would replace the Submariner with a digital Suunto or Garmin, a far more practical tool for a 21st century assaulter. When it was time to go home, the Rolex would come out of his bag and back on his wrist. It was a ritual and a reminder of his accomplishments.
Chesney with Cairo after being shot in Afghanistan during the search for Bowe Bergdahl in June 2009. (Photo Credit: Chesney)
Captain Phillips Rescue, Indian Ocean:
Reflecting on his career and the role the watch played, Chesney said he had two regrets. He wished he had purchased a date Submariner, as this would have been more practical, and he wished he had worn the watch on the rescue of Captain Phillips, another historic hostage rescue operation of the famed squadron. At the time, the clasp was loose and Chesney was concerned that if he had jumped out of the plane, the watch could have come off and fallen into the Indian Ocean. As a practical man, he reflected that he easily could and should have taped the watch to his wrist.
Abbottabad Compound, Pakistan (Photo Credit: AP)
Usama bin Laden:
Prior to leaving for Afghanistan to take part in Operation Neptune Spear, Chesney made the conscious decision to wear the Rolex for this historic mission. He knew the polished steel watch wasn’t “tactical,” but he didn’t care. He was going to die anyway, he reasoned. Like the other members of the team, he extended his life insurance policy to prepare for this eventuality. During a recent conversation, Chesney reflected, “I thought it would be fitting to wear the watch on that operation since it was my gift to myself for making it there, and I figured we wouldn’t be making it back so I might as well die with it on.”
Chesney briefly considered that the watch could be used as a bartering tool if he was stuck across the border in Pakistan, but was quick to say that he would never give the watch up, implying that he would die fighting. The role the watch played was more symbolic than practical.
Rolex and Navy SEALs:
The symbolism of the Rolex Submariner on one of the most historic Special Operations missions is profound. Watch culture is strong in the Naval Special Warfare community and Chesney’s Navy SEAL predecessors wore similar watches– both Rolex and Tudor Submariners as they operated in Vietnam 40 years prior. The founder of SEAL Team Six, Dick Marcinko, wore a no-date Tudor Submariner, not dissimilar to the Rolex worn by Chesney that night. Many SEALs commemorated their graduation from BUD/S or other operational accomplishments with a Rolex Sub.
Rolex and SEAL Trident next to Cairo’s ashes. (Photo Credit: Chesney)
Fortunately, Chesney’s ill-fated premonition did not become reality. Chesney and the team successfully brought the world's most wanted man to justice and returned safely to Bagram Airbase. Days later, Chesney would wear the Submariner to meet President Obama and Vice President Biden, both of whom were insistent they get a picture with Cairo, the only member of the Team whose name had been released at the time.
Chesney and Cairo meeting President Obama and Vice President Biden after Operation Neptune Spear. (Photo Credit: Chesney)
But for Chesney, the fight was far from over. Chesney would redeploy and ultimately earn a Purple Heart from a 2013 grenade attack in Afghanistan. Chesney details his personal struggle with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, and credits his relationship with Cairo as a key tool in supporting his recovery. After Cairo was retired, the Navy allowed Chesney to adopt him. Cairo passed away after a battle with cancer in 2015, and Chesney was by his side.
Today, the Submariner is still reserved for special occasions. The watch is in need of service, but Chesney is concerned that the Red Man insignia will be removed from the caseback. Chesney would like to potentially add to the caseback, subtly honoring friends lost during the past two decades of conflict. The piece itself will remain an heirloom: the watch will be passed down to future generations as a way to continue to honor what his team –and Cairo– accomplished that night in Abbottabad.
Rolex and SEAL Trident next to Cairo’s ashes. (Photo Credit: Chesney)
Chesney’s book, No Ordinary Dog, is a powerful read that explores the genuine emotional bond between a warrior and his military working dog. As Chesney summarizes, “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 book also explores both Chesney’s and Cairo’s difficulties transitioning from years of sustained combat.
In addition to the book, Chesney supports several nonprofits for both veterans and Military Working Dogs, and he specifically highlighted Warrior Health Foundation, Spike’s K-9 Fund as a particularly impactful organization.