Iraq veteran and local mother Sarah Watson is volunteering her time and experience to run an event today (Saturday, October 31st) for the health and wellbeing of veterans as part of this year’s Veterans Health Week which is focusing on ‘Social Connections’.

Today’s event is supported by the Yass RSL sub-branch and local businesses and will be held at Banjo Paterson Park between 9 am and 1 pm with plans to have it in the CWA hall nearby if the thunder and rain keep rolling in. Ms Watson will be running yoga sessions for those interested and with the help of a small grant from the Department of Veteran Affairs, has organised a coffee van to provide free coffee for Veterans.

“In the military, it’s not training if it’s not raining! That’s what they used to say when it was pouring rain out in the field while everyone was getting absolutely drenched,” joked Ms Watson.

Iraq Veteran, Event organiser & Yass Valley RSL sub-branch member – Sarah Watson

There will also be a marquee set up to shield from the rain at the event. Everyone is welcome to come and participate in Yoga, but the event is also acting as a meet and greet for veterans if they want a coffee and a chat. There will be participation gifts for veterans, donated by local businesses.

Ms Watson has taught Yoga before and is a great proponent of the benefits it brings to mental health, stating that she has taught veterans in the past and says anyone can do it, which is the main reason she chose Yoga for the event.

“It will be very gentle. If you’ve never done it before it doesn’t matter; it will be like a ‘come and try’ event. You’ll be able to say, ‘I’ve tried Yoga’ and if you don’t like it, that’s ok, and if you do that’s good too,” said Ms Watson.

Yoga is a form of meditation because it makes the participant focus on breathing and circulating oxygen throughout the body. Yoga focuses the mind on the present rather than racing thoughts, and you begin to feel in the moment and relax. It gives the brain a great chance to rest and rejuvenate as well as the great physical properties yoga brings to people.

Ms Watson’s own experiences galvanised her to run the event this Saturday as she was in the Australian Army and has suffered from mental health issues.

Iraq Veteran Sarah Watson serving as an Intelligence Officer in 2007

After growing up in Yass and attending Mt Carmel School, Ms Watson finished year 11 and 12 at Daramalan in Canberra. She spent three years at the Defence Force Academy and went onto the Royal Military College Duntroon. In September 2000, she graduated and moved into the intelligence core.

After various postings around Australia, she found herself in East Timor, Solomon Islands and even went to language school in Melbourne to study French. This led her to New Caledonia as a linguist and intelligence officer.

While serving at the Australia Signals Directorate in Canberra, Ms Watson was deployed to Iraq in 2006/2007 as an intelligence officer. She served for seven months in Iraq and stated that she struggled with the constant threat, indirect fire, the intensity of the whole operation. When returning home, she realised the deployment had a profound effect on her and took leave without pay from the Army.

In the 18 months she spent away from the service she finished a master’s degree and got engaged before eventually going back in the Army. She resumed work and went into counter-terrorism type postings and policy work.

It wasn’t until being pregnant with her second child and the news of her father having terminal cancer that Ms Watson had a breakdown and was referred to a specialist. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, which led her to be medically discharged in 2015.

Veteran Sarah Watson with sons David and George after their AFL game with Yass Rams

Ms Watson then got involved with Soldier On which helped put her on a positive path and supported her in sporting endeavours. She continues to be a spokesperson for Soldier On to this day. While growing up, Ms Watson was heavily involved in the Yass sporting community playing football, netball, gymnastics, dancing, to name a few.

“Sport was a big part of my life as a kid and now a big part of my life in my 40’s,” said Ms Watson.

After being discharged from the Army, she got into a cycling event with Hamish Blake and Cadell Evans and found a passion for the sport. She attended the Invictus Games competing in cycling, swimming and running and eventually decided to try a half Ironman where she qualified for the World Championships in her first event. She attended in 2017 in America.

She then moved onto trying the full Ironman which involves a 3.8km swim, 180km ride and a 42km run and qualified for the World Championships in that event. She attended Kona in Hawaii 2018 and has been trying to keep it up with regular training which is hard on the body.

She got into Yoga to help stretch and recover her body after the intense physical activities she was training and competing in which made for the perfect event choice for Veterans Health Week.

Ms Watson has also worked with ‘Open Arms’ for a year where she supported Veterans with mental health issues and talked about her own experiences with PTSD and depression.

Ms Watson’s symptoms of PTSD included a recurring nightmare which disrupted her sleep night after night. The nightmare was about Iraq and feeling helpless as she could not get out of danger or help those around her. She also suffered from hypervigilance which caused her to be on edge all the time and had problems with noisy areas and had panic attacks.

“I remember taking a walk in Brisbane. I had a pram with my kids, and a truck backfired.

I went straight down onto the ground.

Just a reaction I had, and I was shaking after,” recalled Ms Watson.

She also had a hard time with depression, not wanting to leave the house, staying home and crying. Ms Watson knew something was wrong but did not acknowledge it for several years before realising the symptoms were stopping her from living a normal life. It was a difficult time in which she sought help and was referred to a psychologist.

The psychologist helped her to understand the symptoms, what they were and why they occurred. After regular sessions and working together, along with her physical activities, she gained a sense of purpose and achievement, noting that goal setting was a big step towards recovery.

“I think sport is critical or physical activity in any capacity because of the good adrenaline and endorphins that come from moving your body,” said Ms Watson.

With therapy, sport, meditation, Yoga and social connection, Ms Watson was set up for good mental health and overcame her PTSD and depression.

Ms Watson said she is now speaking up about her time in service because it is a part of healing – “it is important people understand the cost of war, not only monetary but also mental health costs.”

Sarah Watson competing in the Invictus Games

The number of veterans and their family members around the Yass Valley region is estimated to be more than 300 people. Ms Watson said only some use the services provided, and people often do not tell you they are a veteran which makes it difficult to gauge the amount.

She is now an integral part of the Strategic Development Group in Yass and is proud to be working locally for a business which supports the community.

Sarah has advised the Yoga sessions will be run at 9:15-9:45 am (chair-based Yoga for mobility restricted), 10:00 – 10:30 am and 11:00-11:30 am (mat-based Yoga for all ages); 18 per session may participate. Please RSVP to Sarah Watson: sarwatson78@icloud.com or 0459 934 793

By Ryan Betts