While U.S. Army Sergeant Jason Van Loo was busy serving his country in Afghanistan as a vital member of the 32nd Transportation Company, 43rd Sustainment Brigade — a group also known as the “Rough Riders” — his best friend, 10-year-old Labrador Retriever Blu, was never far from his mind.
But back in April, Sgt. Van Loo got a message from his wife, Kari, which read like a punch to the gut. Blu, Sgt. Van Loo’s canine companion, had been diagnosed with aggressive cancer and likely only had two months to live.
“When I got that text message, my whole world ended,” Van Loo tells The Denver Post. “It’s like finding out one of your kids has cancer.”
Sgt. Van Loo and Kari were heartbroken. With Sgt. Van Loo not slated to return home until August, it seemed more than likely that he wouldn’t get the chance to say goodbye to the dog who’d been there for him through thick and thin.
But Kari wasn’t ready to give up on Blu. She knew her husband had been through so much during his tour of duty, and she wanted to do whatever possible to ensure he’d get to see his boy Blu again. Finding the best treatment for Blu’s cancer became top priority, but she knew doing so could put a serious financial strain on her family, which also includes two autistic children and two little girls the couple is helping to raise after their parents’ deaths.
With little money to put towards Blu’s cancer treatments, Kari and her kids started holding garage sales around Fort Carson in Colorado, hoping to raise enough funds to get Blu the help he needed. But as Blu’s story spread, donations started pouring in. Friends and strangers alike started to contribute to the “Team Blu Van Loo” movement and finally, the Van Loo family was able to get him in to see the veterinary team at Colorado State University’s Flint Animal Cancer Center.
Ten rounds of chemotherapy, a leg amputation, and an additional surgery later, Blu was there to greet Sgt. Van Loo when the American hero returned home in August. Sgt. Van Loo tells Colorado State University (CSU) his tearful reunion with Blu is a moment he will never, ever forget. Though Blu has only three legs now, he’s still the same dog, says Sgt. Van Loo.
“It was unexplainable,” he says. “He dang near plowed me over. I dropped to my knees, and he licked every inch of my face. It was awesome.”
Right alongside Sgt. Van Loo’s family and his beloved dog was a whole group of friends the soldier had yet to meet — the CSU veterinary team who’d been treating Blu’s cancer.
“I don’t think any of us could remain unaffected by what was going on with Jason and with his family at home,” explains CSU surgical oncologist Dr. Bernard Seguin. “It was clear to all of us that this dog symbolized something important and had a very special place in the family.”
Kari says the members of the veterinary team have been some of Blu’s biggest supporters.
“When we come in, they all know who Blu is. They all know who we are,” she says. “On Blu’s tenth 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.”
A CT scan revealed that Blu’s cancer has spread. Sadly, he is entering the last weeks of his life. As for Sgt. Van Loo, he couldn’t be happier to have the chance to spend time with his dog, even if that time is so limited. Blu is helping him adjust to life back home, he explains.
“I consider him a service dog,” Van Loo says of Blu. “It was a rough deployment, and when I talk to people on the street about why he has three legs, it helps me get stuff off my chest.”
“He’s a godsend,” Van Loo adds.