Aged 17, I was at the local disco when a very handsome man offered to buy me a drink.
‘A beer, please,’ I grinned.
As we chatted, I found out Peter Checkley was 25 and a Royal Marine, and while his dancing was terrible, he had the best sense of humour. Eight months later we were married and we went on to welcome a daughter and two sons.
The life and soul of the party, Peter lived as if every moment was precious. But out of the blue he could suddenly become withdrawn.
‘What’s the matter?’ I’d ask him gently.
‘Nothing, I’m fine,’ he’d snap back.
Before we met, Peter had been posted to dangerous war zones and I knew he must’ve seen some really awful things. He’ll open up to me when he’s ready, I thought. So, when he was in one of his moods, I’d encourage the kids to play quietly so they didn’t set him off.
Each time he returned from a tour it was worse though. Hypervigilant, he’d check under our car for bombs and when we were in cafes he’d stand with his back against the wall, so he could see the whole room.
In 1991, we decided to leave England and move to Australia, where Peter joined the Army. It was normal for him to be posted away for long periods of time. But when Peter was home there was no denying the effect it was having on him. Large crowds made him anxious and he’d scan the shopping centre as if he was in combat, clocking men on mobile phones.
‘There’s not a situation,’ I’d soothe.
Then one night, we went to the cinema for a fundraiser and they showed the war film Saving Private Ryan. As the opening scenes depicted a deafening, violent battle, Peter gripped my hand, terrified.
‘Do you want to leave?’ I whispered. But Peter couldn’t move. By the end, he was wet through with sweat.
‘That felt too real,’ he kept saying. ‘The sound of the bullets...’
Coming from an era where people didn’t talk about their problems, he didn’t open up any more and I didn’t want to pressure him. Having been in active service since he was 17, at 58 he was deployed to Afghanistan and it was the final straw, which saw him crumble.
Back home, he’d drink a cask of wine a night. Chatting on the phone one time, I noticed Peter slurring his words.
‘You really need to see someone,’ I urged him.
After suppressing it all this time, he finally agreed he had a problem. He was prescribed medication but it turned him into a zombie and sometimes he struggled to get out of bed. I was terrified about what he might do. I couldn’t lose him. Eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he was medically discharged.
Then in 2014, Peter was at the Anzac Day march when he phoned me.
‘Come down to the parade ground,’ he said.
There were two golden labradors who’d been trained as assistance dogs to help ex-soldiers cope with PTSD.
‘I want one,’ Peter grinned.
He applied and a couple of weeks later the phone rang.
‘They’ve got the perfect dog for me,’ Peter beamed.
When they brought Ruby, a black lab, to meet us, their bond was instant.
Peter became the first person in the country to receive a dog on the Operation K9 program, created by the Returned Services League (RSL-SA) and the Royal Society for the Blind (RSB). With Ruby by Peter’s side, he became more social. If Peter had nightmares, Ruby would curl up on the bed until he’d fallen back to sleep. He was even able to come Christmas shopping with me for five hours!
We felt so blessed, we wanted to give back to the program. So we travelled around sharing our story and in 14 months we raised $50,000 – enough to train two more dogs.
‘What does the dog do if you’re not blind?’ people sometimes ask Peter when we’re out collecting.
Sensing he might feel uncomfortable, Ruby will put her head in his lap as if to say, I’m here, Dad.
‘They don’t only help those who can’t see, but those who have seen too much,’ we tell them.
Now we’re speaking out to encourage other people who might be going through something similar to seek help. It’s okay not to be okay. There are thousands of families like us out there but we’re lucky enough to have found a solution.
Ruby has given us both our lives back. She’s our hero with a waggy tail.
Peter, 65, says:
On tour, I saw so many unforgettable things and I lost friends. I was in a really bad place, thinking Jenny would be better off without me. I’ve now opened up to her about everything. When I got Ruby I was able to socialise again. I’m not 100 per cent – and I never will be – but Ruby helps me get close. She saved my life.
Go to www.rsb.org.au/donation to help fund an assistance dog.
If you or someone you know is struggling, call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, or NZ on 0800 543 354.
This story was originally published in that's life! Issue 45, 9 November 2017.