During four deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, there was one constant for Army Sgt. Jason Van Loo. His loyal dog, Blu, was always at home with his wife and kids.
“He’s been a big part of our family,” Van Loo said about his yellow Labrador retriever.
In December 2012, Van Loo was enduring his roughest combat tour since joining the military 13 years before. After three deployments to Iraq, the soldier was dodging improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan with his Colorado-based unit.
“Everybody hears about Afghanistan and all the IEDs and stuff, and it pretty much lives up to that,” Van Loo said. “It’s the real deal over there.”
On the deployment’s first mission, he sensed something strange during a joint combat patrol.
“I thought I heard something and felt vibrations in the truck,” he said. “Eventually, we figured out that no one could get ahold of the rear truck ... that’s when we found out my buddy’s truck had been hit.”
Van Loo’s buddy was Staff Sgt. Mark Schoonhoven, 38, of Plainwell, Mich. He suffered devastating injuries in the Dec. 15, 2012, IED attack, and succumbed to his wounds on Jan. 20. Before Van Loo’s deployment was over, four more teammates were killed in action and four were wounded.
“We tried to get over our losses and keep our mission going,” said Van Loo, who was deeply affected by the tragedies.
In the early morning hours of July 3, Van Loo was the assistant gunner in his Army vehicle when his convoy encount-ered a road blocked by burning fuel tankers. As fellow soldiers tried to clear a path, there was a huge explosion.
“I don’t recall a lot of it, but I do recall seeing black smoke and red and orange,” Van Loo said.
His vehicle had been struck by an enemy rocket-propelled grenade, but miraculously, he and his entire patrol survived.
“I would say I had angels looking out for me and everyone else in the truck that day,” he said.
As he dealt with the daily dangers of wartime service, Van Loo was shocked when his wife, Kari, informed him that their beloved Blu had been diagnosed with bone cancer. While some may have put the dog down, Kari Van Loo was determined to ease Blu’s pain and make sure the pet was reunited with her husband.
“It meant the world to me that my wife wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Jason Van Loo said. “(Blu) was the one taking my spot while I was gone.”
Blu’s leg was amputated. The dog then started chemotherapy at Colorado State University, which Kari Van Loo said “went above and beyond” to treat her sick pet. The community also rallied around the deployed soldier’s wife and three kids to form “Team Blu Van Loo” and to raise funds for the dog’s expensive surgery and treatments.
“She just never gave up,” Jason Van Loo said about his wife. “She wanted to make sure Blu was there when I came home.”
Sure enough, when he returned from his harrowing fourth deployment, Blu was waiting.
“I was so happy to see him,” the soldier said. “I was so tired and exhausted, and he just knocked me over with his three legs and started licking me. It was awesome.”
On Oct. 29 — Jason’s Van Loo’s 41st birthday — the medical staff at Colorado State University gave a hero’s welcome to the soldier and his dog.
“That’s what I wanted for my birthday,” Van Loo said. “He had to get some blood tests, and they had a big party for him.”
Blu died just before Thanksgiving. Although the soldier, his wife and their children are saddened by their pet’s passing, Jason Van Loo is forever grateful for the weeks he got to spend with the dog after returning from Afghanistan.
“We donated all his organs to CSU so they can study and research (cancer),” Van Loo said. “Somebody paid it forward for me, so I want to pay it forward as well.”
Sgt. Jason Van Loo has suffered great loss over the past year, but as he continues his Army career, he is determined to carry on with the memory of the fallen, including Blu, in his heart.
“He’s still with us in spirit,” Van Loo said.
Tom Sileo is a syndicated columnist. His Unknown Soldiers columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and appear in the Centre Daily Times on Fridays. Readers may follow his posts on Facebook and his blog at www.unknownsoldiersblog.com.