Katie Ribbens—Staff Writer
In front of Gerry Holtrop sit three packets. Each packet outlines a program or fundraiser he spends hours each day planning. He may be retired after 42 years in law enforcement, but Holtrop keeps busy volunteering as the vice president of the nonprofit Partners for Patriots, which pairs service dogs with disabled veterans.
His job is two-fold: he generates programs to raise support for Partners and acts as a traveling trainer. In his latter role, he drives service dogs to their veterans across the United States and spends several days training them to function as a team.
For Holtrop, it all started with a dog named Jeb. The sleek black lab revolutionized the use of dogs in law enforcement in the 1990’s. Holtrop’s favorite years of his career revolved around working with Jeb in drug detection, evidence recovery, and tracking.
“It used to be when I arrived on a scene, they would say, ‘oh good, here’s Jeb—and his driver,’” Holtrop said.
When Jeb passed away after ten faithful years of work, the grief forced Holtrop to take three days off work. Holtrop later realized God had been working behind the scenes all along. Cindy Brodie, the founder of Partners for Patriots, had helped train Jeb. Fifteen years after Jeb’s passing, Holtrop received a phone call.
Brodie’s voice crackled from the other line. She was worn to the bone from trying to keep the newly founded Partners for Patriots afloat on her own. After praying for a direction to go to help, Brodie found a photo of Holtrop’s dog Jeb that she had saved from many years earlier. At the same time, Holtrop had been praying about a new outlet to pour himself into after retiring from law enforcement. Brodie invited Holtrop to meet her at the Partners for Patriots facility and, after the tour, the pair found themselves sitting in her kitchen.
“Cindy, what is your greatest need right now?” Holtrop said.
“I need somebody who can spread the word about Partners and do some fundraising,” Brodie said. “We’re always just a month or so away from going under.”
“That’s something I can do.”
Holtrop thew himself into his new role in public relations. He started calling organizations to see if they would allow him to do a presentation there with the ‘slideshows’ he created.
“My grandkids say, ‘grandpa, it’s a PowerPoint presentation,’” Holtrop said. “I’m still trying to catch up.”
The presentations Holtrop put together organically led to donations to Partners for Patriots. Before long, people were calling him to do programs. Holtrop found it incredibly rewarding.
“I’m talking about how special the dogs are and what they do, and I look out in the audience,” Holtrop said. “And I can see on the faces of a few that they get it, that they understand.”
As much as Holtrop loves speaking at programs, the veterans he meets as a traveling trainer have forever shaped him. In his grandfatherly voice, he can tell countless stories of the people he has met and the dogs that saved them.
Even after receiving a dog, some veterans are vulnerable to giving up the fight with PTSD and consider suicide. As one veteran shoved a gun into his mouth and prepared to pull the trigger, his service dog came up and started licking him.
“It was crying,” the veteran said. “It had tears in its eyes.”
The dog continued to stare at him with mournful eyes, begging him to stay with him.
“In that moment in his life, he [the veteran] felt the only one that really loved him was his dog and the only one that needed him was his dog,” Holtrop said.
So, he put the gun down.
Although Holtrop only spends a handful of days with each veteran and their dog, the friendships he forms with them are unrivaled. He gets to experience the moments with them when their lives change by the presence of four paws. The wall they have built around themselves crumbles and they become open and honest. Time and time again, the veterans say that once the dog breaks through their episodes of PTSD, the anxiety, the visions, the pain—it all disappears.
The veterans continue to keep in touch long after Holtrop leaves. He receives updates and pictures, which he adores. When a veteran needs help or has a question at any point, Holtrop is ready and willing to answer their call. With their dogs at their side, the veterans are also able to open themselves up and share their story at programs with Holtrop.
The “traveling” part of his work as a traveling trainer keeps life interesting for Holtrop. Last year, he took a dog on a plane for the first time.
“I’m glad to say, neither the dog nor me pooped on the plane,” Holtrop said.
He also takes the opportunity to sometimes bring his wife along on his travels, even if she rolls her eyes at him when he insists on stopping at historical markers.
Holtrop firmly believes that the service dogs save lives. That they save marriages. That they save jobs. That they save citizens from life sentences.
Partners for Patriots will have a booth at the Sioux Center Indoor Fair at Dordt University’s Rec Center on March 17 and 18. Holtrop will be manning the booth and selling sweatshirts. He hopes to bring a veteran with his service dog and a current puppy raiser to spread the news about the program he is so passionate about.