By Tech. Sgt. Joshua Arends
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — “I believe your past does not define you. It’s how you overcome that does.”
This philosophy is what Senior Airman Sara Welch believes and now lives by, she said as she told her life story at the Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, Storytellers event, March 30, 2018.
Welch grew up in a house with two older brothers, one older sister, one baby brother and her mother. Her parents were not married. She remembers infrequently seeing her father, who spent most of his time supporting the family as a truck driver.
When her father was home, he would often leave for days after having a fight with her mother. Welch’s mother suffered from scoliosis and developed a substance abuse problem that combined pain pills with alcohol.
“Before this all happened, she was a fairly good mother,” said Welch. “But the substance abuse turned her into a monster.”
Welch said her mother went into fits of rage and would beat her and her siblings. Because she and her brother, Darrel, the middle child, were the youngest of five children, they received the brunt of their mother’s abuse, while her two eldest siblings, Tara and James, received preferential treatment. Her youngest brother, Daniel, a baby at the time, rarely had his diapers changed by his mother and suffered from neglect.
Welch and Darrel tried to run away from home, but her mother sent her older siblings to find them. Punishment ranged from an open or closed fist, a flexible rod or leather belt, to being locked in a dark closet for up to 10 hours. Welch says she still suffers to this day from fear of the dark and enclosed spaces.
When her brother, Darrel, was kicked in the head and knocked out by another kid at a playground, Tara and James took their brother home and told their mom. Their mother left Darrel lying on the couch in his vomit and bodily fluids for several days until their father came home. Their father rushed Darrel to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a subdermal hematoma in his brain. If left untreated for a couple more hours, he would have died.
Welch and her siblings were removed from the home by Child Protective Services and placed in foster care after hospital staff made a few phone calls. The sisters were separated from their brothers and placed into a home with physically abusive foster parents.
Shortly afterward, her father suddenly died from tumors in his lungs and brain. Welch and her sister were told two days later, during the first birthday party Welch had ever received. Welch had just turned 8.
“The hardest thing about this whole situation was we were scheduled for a visit with my dad the following week,” said Welch. “I will never get over the fact that I never got to tell my dad I loved him one last time.”
But not long after, the sisters were moved to the same foster home where their brothers resided. This is when, Welch said, a shift took place in her life.
The foster parents were an older couple, and it took several months for Welch to trust them enough to talk to them without communicating through her siblings to say what she needed.
After getting caught hoarding food in her room, Welch’s foster mother, Carrie Wathson, sat her down and told her she could get food whenever she needed. Welch didn’t believe it at first and tested that theory by getting food at odd hours. Welch tried different ways to be obnoxious and test her foster mother’s patience, but Carrie responded with gentle correction.
Welch’s foster father, Roy Wathson, got through to her in a different way. He taught her how to ride a dirt bike, and even gave her one of his older bikes. When she crashed his bike, his concern was for her well-being and not the loss of the bike.
“For him to care about me and not his $2,000 bike was shocking to me, “said Welch.
Over time, Welch grew comfortable enough to refer to her foster parents as “mom and dad,” which made Carrie and Roy happy. As a family, the foster parents took the kids on multiple vacations. Welch said when she thinks about her parents, she is moved.
“Here are these people that were strangers, who took in my brothers, sister and I, took care of us and treated us like their own kids when we had no blood relation to them.”
Carrie and Roy had fostered 60 kids over their lifetime, and won an award from the state of California for Foster Parent of the Year in 2012. For Welch, they were her heroes that she aspired to be like. She wanted to make them proud of her.
When she was in high school, she decided to join the Air Force instead of going to college. Welch said her parents thought it would be a great fit. The Air Force would provide discipline, a roof over her head, and she could still go to college later. When she graduated from Basic Military Training, Welch said she and her foster parents had tears streaming down their faces.
“I was so proud in that moment knowing my mom and dad were there supporting me,” she said.
Six and a half years have passed since she joined the Air Force.
Welch is currently a dental laboratory technician working for the 21st Dental Squadron. Before coming to Peterson AFB, she was at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where she met her husband, Blake, and they have been married for almost four years.
“Bad things happen to good people,” Welch said. “You can decide to dwell on those bad things in your past, or you can decide to overcome and fight for a better future.”
Welch’s biological mother is now sober and she decided to forgive her. She and her mother now have a good relationship.
“If I had decided to dwell on the past and not allow a relationship to blossom with my mother, I would never know and absolutely love the person she is today,” said Welch. “The past does not define me. I define myself. I am a daughter, a wife, a friend and most of all, I am a survivor.”