Hank wore a pink bandana, matching Sarah Cole’s dress. As a camera snapped, William Cole leaned over to pet Hank. All three of them smiled. It was a big day for the young couple, William and Sarah, a gender reveal party with friends to announce that Sarah is expecting a baby girl in October.
Hence Hank’s bandana.
But for William Cole, the day was a bittersweet milepost on a long road from his time as an Army Ranger, an infantryman with C Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. He was just happy Hank, a black Labrador retriever, was there to share it.
“Everything about my life [after the Army] was a nightmare, but — I looked back on it — the one constant was Hank,” Cole said, audibly emotional. “He was the one thing.”
And William also knew a hard truth: The party to announce his daughter’s fall arrival would, for Hank and him, have to be a goodbye.
“I miss him so much,” Cole said. “I feel this void in my heart that has made me feel so empty over these last few days.”
William spotted Hank in 2011, one puppy in a litter somebody was selling on the side of a Texas road. Cole’s therapist at the VA had been telling him to get a dog as he struggled to adjust to life after the military.
“Hank saw me and dropped the bottle he had in his mouth and tried to climb out,” Cole told Coffee or Die Magazine. “Something made sense to me at a time when not a lot made sense, so I decided to get him.”
Leaving the Army had sent Cole into a downward spiral, and the week after he picked out Hank, he moved to College Station, Texas. There he began giving away his things. He said he had no intention of living. His family had no idea, Cole said, but he was having garage sales to just give his stuff away.
But even in the dark days, he had a new dog to look after.
“I still had Hank,” Cole said. “I would never give away Hank.”
“Hank slowly started pulling me out of a rut by forcing me to get up and move around and thus engaging me more mentally as well — taking him out, caring for him, exercising with him, feeding him. Over time, those things started moving me forward,” Cole said. “It was still incredibly frustrating, because you have days where you take five steps backward after only taking two steps forward. It’s challenging, but you can’t give up, and Hank was the one who continued to push me.”
Cole went from giving away his things because he felt the end of his life would be soon to thinking maybe he’d kill himself “eventually.” Then “eventually” turned to “maybe I don’t need to do this; maybe I can get better.”
“If I didn’t have Hank, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Cole said. “I don’t know if we’d be having this conversation right now.”
If Hank saved Cole during those days, Cole got to return the favor a few years later. When Hank was 2 years old, he was hit by a car going over 50 mph.
After the car hit him, Hank needed a long list of medical procedures. The bill came to $16,000. Cole had about $700 in his bank account.
“When Hank was hit by the car, and he had the bill, I said ‘Do everything you can,’” Cole said.
The heavy bills led to an inspiration. As he wondered how he would would ever work off the debt, he heard from Dr. Mike Moore, a Corpus Christi, Texas, veterinarian. Moore had started a fund that raised money to provide veterinary care for the service animals of veterans like Hank, and for retired military animals.
Cole saw a chance to give back in a far bigger way. With Moore, he founded Hank’s & Eli’s Fund as a nonprofit for service dogs and former military dogs.
While Hank is the service dog in the name, Eli is the military working dog. Eli’s handler, Lance Cpl. Colton Rusk, was killed in action in December 2010. When Colton was killed, Cole said, Eli would not allow anyone near his body. In the wake of Rusk’s death, the Marines retired Eli and Rusk’s family adopted him.
The fund raised over $100,000 in 2019 and 2020, the most recent years for which its public filings are available.
The fund finds veterans and dogs from veterinarian referrals. Recently, Cole read about Carson Wehmeyer and his dog, Big Moe, in a news story and reached out to Wehmeyer directly. The fund gathers medical records for these service dogs or retired military working dogs, verifies the information of the dogs and their owners, and keeps two veterinarians on staff to make informed decisions regarding how and why they might provide support to an animal.
Financially, the fund pays bills after local procedures or covers other costs of care for major obstacles like injury, canine cancer, amputations, or heatstroke, any of which can financially cripple a dog owner just trying to save their dog.
In early 2022, Hank was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue, “a really rare, really aggressive cancer and in a really unfortunate spot,” Cole said.
Cole said he noticed blood on Hank’s dog bed one day. He brushed it off, thinking it had been a result of scabs from the dog’s scratching due to allergies. But days later, he saw more blood on the bed. He checked all of Hank’s teeth.
“He hated it,” Cole said. “I would put my hand in there and look for blood and I could not find it. I was just so confused.”
Cole took Hank to the veterinarian, who discovered the tumor under Hank’s tongue. The blood came from a puncture Hank may have made when he was eating his food.
Cole only wished they’d found the tumor sooner.
“We’re definitely lucky that we were able to find it before it was beyond the point of no return,” he said.
Last month, Hank endured radiation for four days, starting on a Monday, in an attempt to wipe out his cancer, and the tumor took to it well. It shrunk from 5 centimeters to almost nothing. But after Hank returned home to recover from the intensive treatment, the tumor soon grew back to 4 centimeters.
“He had a really rough time with [the radiation], and it was very hard on him,” Cole said. “He lost a lot of weight, he lost energy.”
At one point Cole admitted Hank to the veterinarian for pain control, “because it was just so bad.”
Hank was on chemotherapy pills. They also took a toll on him, but Cole said he rewarded Hank with “a little turkey after.”
Hank’s veterinarian had Cole make a list of Hank’s five favorite things:
- Playing with friends.
- Following Cole around.
- Playing with his toys.
- Begging for treats.
“He has these several routines that he has, where multiple times of the day he thinks that he did something right,” Cole said. “He will come up to us, will come up to me, he’ll like look at me, and if I don’t go into the kitchen and get a treat, he’ll start barking at me.”
In all, keeping Hank alive cost close to $9,000. The fund covered the expenses.
“These couple of months have given me time to process what’s going on; it’s given me time to think about everything,” Cole said. “And, ultimately, we tried really hard to get it better. We did everything we could and that gives me peace of mind knowing ‘Hey, we did what we could,’ right?”
Last Saturday, Sarah and William put the pink bandana around Hank’s neck, took family pictures, and talked with friends about the future. But on Sunday, William knew the time had come.
“He was struggling to drink water due to the necrosis taking place,” Cole said. “Struggling to eat. And his jaw started shaking from the pain. He knew it was time and laid in my arms.”