In honor of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, we offer a story about a Colorado soldier and his dog. Separated by more than 7,000 miles, they fought very different battles – both heroically.
Sgt. Jason Van Loo, an Army gunner stationed at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, had one hope during his recent deployment to Afghanistan, a deployment during which he lost a buddy to an improvised explosive device and nearly died in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on streets near Kabul.
Van Loo wanted to see his yellow Labrador Retriever again.
The dog, Blu, had been diagnosed with bone cancer four months into Van Loo’s nine-month deployment. Blu’s first veterinarian said there was nothing to do and gave the 10-year-old dog a couple months to live. A second local vet, realizing the urgency, amputated Blu’s left front leg in an effort to rid the dog’s body of osteosarcoma.
A few days after the surgery, Van Loo’s wife, Kari, landed with the family dog at Colorado State University’s Flint Animal Cancer Center, desperate to keep Blu alive for her husband. After 10 rounds of chemotherapy and an additional surgery to remove an aggressive mass, Blu was there to greet Van Loo when he arrived home.
“It was unexplainable,” Van Loo recalled of his homecoming in August. “He dang near plowed me over. I dropped to my knees, and he licked every inch of my face. It was awesome.”
A video of their reunion shows soldier and dog in their first moments back together, Van Loo gaunt and dressed in fatigues, Blu missing a front limb, yet madly wagging his tail.
“Hey Blu, hey buddy. How’s my buddy? Oh, doesn’t anybody ever rub your ears?” Van Loo coos to his dog, scratching Blu’s ears and his favorite belly spot.
Also in the family’s home that day was a green poster adorned with gold ribbon – a welcome-home poster with greetings and well-wishes from an entirely new extended family that Van Loo had not yet met: more than a dozen CSU veterinarians, vet techs, and staff members who had been treating Blu’s cancer and supporting his care in Fort Collins. Like Blu’s family, the medical team at the Flint Animal Cancer Center had become invested in reuniting man and dog, both of whom had been through war.
“The circumstances were incredibly touching, with Kari saying, ‘I want to keep Blu alive until Jason comes home.’ It was incredibly moving and really gave us a goal,” said Dr. Bernard Seguin, a CSU surgical oncologist. “There were a lot of high emotions in this case for a lot of reasons.
“I don’t think any of us could remain unaffected by what was going on with Jason and with his family at home,” Seguin continued. “It was clear to all of us that this dog symbolized something important and had a very special place in the family.”
As Blu went through cancer treatment, Jason Van Loo was in the middle of a grueling tour in Afghanistan with the 32nd Transportation Company, 43rd Sustainment Brigade. His company – part of the brigade known as the “Rough Riders” – provides combat service support, hauling supplies to troops in the field and escorting details of the Afghan National Army as it works to regain control in the war-torn nation.
As gunmen, Van Loo and his buddies drive trucks and man weapons turrets to protect convoys traversing military roads that, in Afghanistan, are riddled with IED’s that could explode at any moment. The anxiety, Van Loo said, “never ends.”
His recent tour began in November 2012. It was his fifth overseas deployment – his fourth deployment during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and Van Loo was stationed at Bagram Air Field Base.
During a convoy run early in the tour, a close friend was in a truck that hit an IED. Van Loo, just two trucks away, heard the explosion and felt reverberations. He soon learned that his buddy was in the demolished vehicle, with numerous broken bones and such massive trauma that he was put in a medically induced coma to be transported back to the United States. He died at a hospital in San Antonio.
Shortly after, four more company members were killed and four other soldiers were gravely wounded in two separate rocket attacks.
Then, on July 3 this year, Van Loo was in a convoy near Kabul, surrounded by small-arms fire. As day dawned, the trucks encountered a choke point; six scorched fuel tankers were blocking the street. Van Loo was on top, in a weapons turret, scanning the scene as his truck crawled through the road block.
“Then a huge explosion went off. All I saw was red and orange and smoke. I don’t really remember much after that,” Van Loo said.
A round from a rocket-propelled grenade was lodged in the side of the truck, just below his feet. If the round had continued ripping through the truck, Van Loo and his driver would be dead.
“I’ve got angels looking out for me,” he said. “I was pretty traumatized.”
A world away, Kari Van Loo knew her husband’s recovery could hinge on the survival of Blu, a dog the family refers to as “man’s best friend and mama’s boy.”
Blu, who typically weighs 120 pounds, is a dog who whines when Metallica is on the radio, and sleeps contentedly at the sound of Toby Keith. A dog who is routinely visited by neighborhood children the Van Loos don’t even know. A dog who draws smiles from people around him – and smiles in return. A dog who recently has endured vomiting during one day of cancer treatment, followed by a day sniffing and scampering at the dog park.
His love for Blu is akin to love for a child, Jason Van Loo said.
So finding treatment for Blu was a top priority for Kari. Yet the dog’s dire prognosis was not the only hurdle she faced after Blu was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. The family has three children, two with autism. The Van Loos also help raise two girls of deceased friends. And Kari Van Loo has significant health challenges of her own.
With limited finances, Kari and her children began holding garage sales in Fort Carson to pay for Blu’s cancer treatment. Soon, those efforts grew into something much larger: Team Blu. With help from friends and strangers alike – and with a Facebook page called “Team Blu Van Loo” – a community has formed to support the Van Loo family and the health needs of their dog.
At the center of Team Blu is the medical team at Flint Animal Cancer Center and its contributors.
“They have been a huge support, not just when Blu has appointments,” Kari Van Loo said. “When we come in, they all know who Blu is. They all know who we are. On Blu’s 10th birthday, they held ‘Happy Birthday’ banners and wore Team Blu T-shirts. They’ve gone above and beyond for our family. When Jason got home and we were at the hospital for an appointment, everybody came out in shifts to meet him. I’m in awe.”
On Sept. 30, Blu underwent a CT scan so his veterinarians could assess his condition. The Van Loo family learned that cancer had spread through their dog’s body and into his organs.
With Blu’s time alive now clearly limited, Jason and Kari have decided to donate their dog’s cancerous organs to Flint Animal Cancer Center, hoping scientific investigation at the renowned center will lead to better understanding and an eventual cure for cancer.
“We’re going to have to lose Blu,” Kari said through tears. “But if he hadn’t gotten sick, we would not have met everyone who has come into our lives. There’s a reason Blu has gone on this journey.”
When he returned home in August to his family and his dog, Jason realized how much they had been through during the previous nine months. He realized that his special dog had given all of them hope.
“It’s a perfect world with Blu – picture perfect,” he said. “I can’t imagine how our lives would have been in the past 10 years without him.”