Australian officer recalls ‘confronting’ experience while serving in Ukraine
Major Brad Watson is the Australia Territory’s Head of Community Engagement – Mission. He is also part of The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services (IES) team and is often deployed to disaster zones around the world. He shares with Salvos Online his experience of a recent secondment to war-torn Ukraine
BY SIMONE WORTHING
“It’s been a big few months,” wrote Australian officer Major Brad Watson just before Christmas last year.
“For those who aren’t aware, I’ve recently had the privilege of being seconded to support The Salvation Army’s work in Ukraine for a couple of months. It’s an amazing place, full of amazing people who, through no fault of their own, are living with conflict.
“I’ve deliberately picked some pictures (see images throughout this story) that mix the beauty with the pain with the beautiful people … Be brave like Ukraine.”
Brad is the Head of Community Engagement – Mission for the Australia Territory. He is part of The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services (IES) team and is often deployed to disaster zones around the world.
Other Australian IES members include Major Darren Elsley (who has served in Vanuatu and Romania), Major Drew Ruthven (long-term IES member and former director), Daryl Crowden (General Manager - Salvation Army Emergency Services [SAES]) and Nigel Chong (Assistant Director for the SAES in Tasmania).
In early November 2023, Brad arrived in Kyiv, Ukraine, with fellow IES members Major Mike McKee from the USA Central Territory, who has served at natural and man-made disasters around the world, and Alina Popsui, who is based at International Headquarters (IHQ) in London and manages the more than 20 active projects in Ukraine. Alina has 18 years of experience working with a range of non-government organisations, and was also the Ukrainian/English interpreter for the group and their Ukrainian hosts.
The team’s role involved helping with the coordination of humanitarian and development aid and providing on-the-ground support in Ukraine.
“It’s about supplementing and supporting the locals,” said Brad. “It’s enhancing, equipping and building the capacity of Ukrainians helping Ukrainians so they can do even better work when we leave. And it’s giving spiritual support and leadership, which is so beneficial in emergency situations.
“We went in with the mantra, ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ and worked with both IHQ and the Eastern Europe Territory leadership on how to achieve international goals as well as support the locals, be their extra hands and offer technical advice. We worked on finding out what is already happening and how to best coordinate that. This included the practical issues of convoys of supplies coming in, distribution and reporting to supporting territories. We also connected the locals with key personnel in London and Chisinau (the capital of Moldova where the EET headquarters are located).
“On behalf of The Salvation Army, we attended coordination meetings and liaised with other agencies and organisations such as the UNHCR, (UN High Commission for Refugees) and OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This has two benefits – it enables us to coordinate the work that is occurring, as well as to find out what's happening that may impact The Salvation Army such as safety and security issues, whether more funding is coming available or changes in local legislation.”
Brad explained that there is always an ‘exit strategy’ in place when IES teams leave.
“We’re always looking at the overlap between emergency response and development – where our exit strategy actually leads to more development work,” he said. “That’s probably one of my bigger contributions because I’ve got both the development training and the emergency experience.
“Being in Ukraine with an active war was a confronting scene, and to witness children and families having to live in this constant danger was even more alarming,” Brad shared. “These families found themselves without work, away from home, in dire circumstances and often in freezing weather.” (The temperature fell to -11°C while Brad was there but can reach -20°C or lower.)
Brad has been part of the Army’s International Emergency Response team since 2005.
“There had been some funding available through IHQ for training, and Australia was asked to put together a group,” he explained. “A few of us trained in that group who went on to become IES members, including Majors Drew Ruthven and Daryl Crowden.
“I was trained and deployed initially as part of the response to the South Asian tsunami in 2005. I went to India for three months for my first deployment. I couldn’t have done too badly, as they’ve kept me!
“I was deployed again, and, although I knew emergency work, I wanted to upskill. I had observed many colleagues in other organisations who had significant qualifications before they were deployed. So, I completed a master’s degree in international development through Deakin University as I worked on the job. Since then, it’s all fallen into place.”
There are many aspects of emergency work that Brad loves.
“The first is that it’s a very tangible piece of work,” he shared. “Particularly when you go in during the first early days after a disaster, you find that you make a difference straight away to people who need it desperately. That’s one of the things that I’ve always enjoyed, feeling that sense of achievement and knowing I’ve made a difference today.
“Another piece of it is that it fits my personality in that I like change and adventure and I like different environments. I seem to be able to cope and adapt in most environments. So, if I’m sleeping on the floor in the back streets of India somewhere, I’m kind of okay with that. And then on top of all of that, because I’ve got skills and training in the area, now it’s good to use it. I also really enjoy intercultural work. So that combination all fits together.
Challenges in emergency work, though, are real.
“Quite often, you’re in environments that carry inherent stress,” Brad said. “People have been through a lot, and it doesn't matter if it’s a war zone, a cyclone or whatever; inherent stress means emotions are heightened and resources are low. There’s always a bit of tension. And I find that quite often, the best thing we can do is be the calming presence in the room. That can make a huge difference. It’s a spiritual thing in many respects, almost a chaplaincy as well as a practical expression because we are often able to keep our heads in that.
“Another challenge with inherent stress is sometimes there’s inherent risk. For example, if it’s a natural disaster, there may still be fire, flood or aftershocks from an earthquake. There may be ongoing security concerns. All those things are continuing that you need to be consistently mindful of.
“And then there’s the personal challenges – you’ve got to look after your health, and you’re away from family. Quite often, you are in cultures and situations that no one else understands, and you can’t explain to them. And you can’t always rely on WiFi and those sorts of things that aren't always existing, so communicating out can be a challenge.
“Language can also be a challenge. Many of us in the team have a couple of languages, but they’re not necessarily the ones spoken where we are. For example, going into Ukraine, only Alina speaks Ukrainian. Mike speaks Spanish, so it’s common that in most teams, we’ll have a couple of languages between us, so we look for the one that overlaps.”
Brad speaks French. He began learning through three deployments to French-speaking countries – Haiti, Mali and Vanuatu.
“I try now to maintain the language through apps and using the language wherever I can,” he says.
Salvation Army Ukrainian response
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reports that more than 1.4 million homes* have been damaged since the Russian invasion in February 2022, more than five million people are internally displaced, and more than 18 million people* (almost half the entire population) need some kind of aid.
The Salvation Army in Ukraine has been providing assistance since the day the war commenced – 24 February 2022 – distributing hygiene items, bedding, clothing, food and water, opening corps for internally displaced people, and providing pastoral care and support. For almost two years, corps have also been organising activities for children, youth and adults and continuing their regular ministry, outreach and programs.
Bases have been set up in several locations across the country, including frontline areas such as Kharkiv and Pisochyn, and in places to where many displaced families have fled, such as Kyiv and Lviv.
“The support that we are providing is far-reaching, and we can see it is making a difference to the people of Ukraine,” said Brad. “It is a privilege and an honour to see our Salvation Army colleagues in action and to work with them.
“Every day, we see some sort of impact from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and even though we may be hundreds of kilometres from the frontline, we stand and support the people affected. Please continue to keep your thoughts and prayers with the people of Ukraine and those affected in Russia.”
*Figures correct 11 December 2023