For Peter West (49) there was no doubt that he wanted to be portrayed with Gijs, his assistance dog. His son Rick and brother-in-law Edward were also photographed. “It was a very nice day at our home in Hoogezand, a lot of family present. And I felt a good click with the photographer. Gijs too, by the way, he sat so nice and still.”
By Edward Swier
Gijs is not a normal dog. He has an extra sense. “Gijs is already an old boss, in June 2020 he’ll be 9. Normally, a service dog will be retired by then. But Gijs is doing so well that we will stick together for another year. After that, he’ll be our house dog.”
Peter’s had the Labrador for seven years. The two have fused together, so to speak. Peter benefits greatly from the support of his faithful four-legged friend. Peter has PTSD and Gijs knows that. He is trained to intervene ‘with a soft hand’ when his owner starts showing deviant behaviour. “He knows when it’s going to be challenging for me.”
Peter apologizes. Says his stories can sometimes seem chaotic. Warns that sometimes he can get emotional. “I’m okay with that, that’s what I am now.”
He went to Cambodia as a Marine in 1993. What he went through there changed his life, forever. “I dropped out of service a year later. And joined the GGZ pretty soon after that. At the time, I felt I had to get things of my chest. All in all, I was there for a year, I thought I’d gotten rid of everything. But I hadn’t.”
About twelve years ago, he really got stuck. “Everything came back up. I couldn’t go on. That’s when I turned on all the helplines.” The process that followed taught him that he did have PTSD, a problem he had tried to deny.
“In the years after Cambodia, fears and stress built up. I continued to fight against that. I often had to pick myself up. I didn’t feel safe, not even at home. I slept badly, I was just pacing. At work things didn’t always go smoothly either.”
“Sure, my neighbourhood had figured out something was going on with me. I could react very aggressively, isolating myself. Sometimes I also had a huge reaction to things. I cancelled birthdays at the last minute. Then my wife had to go alone, I wouldn’t go with her anyway. That of course puts you in isolation.”
Through the Veterans Institute he came into contact with a therapist. “It was really challenging. I wasn’t much of a talker.” It was all hard for Peter to accept. But since he’s got Gijs it’s going much better.
“It’s had a special side effect. From the day I had Gijs, I had to take to the streets. That makes you talk to more people. And then you have to tell me why you ‘suddenly’ have a service dog. I had a hard time with that at first, you get a sticker on your head. But afterwards it did have a healing effect. I’m talking to you now, don’t have to run away from it, don’t fight it. That doesn’t always work out, but I’ve learned to accept it.”
In all those conversations, on the street, with acquaintances and interested people, Peter has already told many times what Gijs is capable of. “He sees it when I show nervous traits, when I start playing with my hands. Then he comes up to me and puts his nose on my leg. Gus can be really annoying. He makes me see myself clearly.”
If Peter goes into town, Gijs makes sure that Peter has to concentrate on his dog. “This makes it easier for me to deal with other situations. I am often still anxious. If a few people walk in my direction on the street, I’m afraid they’ll want to do something to me. If there’s a money transport, I’m afraid of a robbery. It’s crept in, it’s in my head. But with Gijs around, I can handle it. “When I’m busy with Gijs, I forget the things around me, I leave the environment for what it is.”
Also during the Invictus Games, Gijs will be present. Peter is a member of the sitting volleyball team and will also participate in the 1500 meter athletics in 2021. “Gijs will not be joining then, that’s not necessary. He’ll be lying quietly on the side.”
Precisely because of Gijs, Peter started playing sports again a few years ago. “I walked a lap with him every now and then.” That provided the inspiration to see if there was room for him in the Invictus team. “A year before Sydney, I made contact for the first time. I went to see an open training course in Doorn once. And that immediately felt like a hot bath. The whole atmosphere, the mutual understanding.” Participation in Sydney came too early, The Hague just in time. Even though there was a year’s delay.
In the audience he will see his son Rick and brother-in-law Edward in a year anyway. “I threw it at home in the group to see who wanted to have their picture taken with me. I also have a daughter, Nina. She didn’t have to. But Rick liked it. It hasn’t been easy for those two. A father who can be very angry just like that. Of course, when they were little, they didn’t get it. There’s been a lot of tension in the family. It’s nice to see how they stand behind me now anyway. They understand me, they understand. If there’s anything on TV that could disrupt me, they say of their own accord, “I’d better choose another channel.”
Still, there are days when Peter would rather not be home. “If it gets too crazy for me, I’m going to Edward’s. He’s my wife’s brother and lives with Bob in the middle of the country. If I have to rest a bit, I go to them for a sleepover. It’s great, I walk in the woods there. And I can recharge. It’s as special as people understand that sometimes I need that too.”
Portraits: Ed O’Mahoney