A mate and I were posted  together to deploy to Afghanistan  and we kind of had a shared bond through surfing  and we found that when we came back from our  deployment it was the one thing we could go to,  out in the ocean just to get away from all that,  you know, background noise and kind of relax.  And we thought we might be able to help other  veterans in a similar situation through surfing  and ocean therapy. So, AVS was was founded. So,  we've got five clubs. Probably 100 plus members.  Because your sole focus is the next wave or  getting over the next set that's going to come and  possibly, you know, send you back to shore, that's  where you have to focus. So, it's being present in  the now rather than, you know, what's happened in  the past or what could happen tomorrow. Being out  in the water with someone for the first time or  after a long time out of the water, you definitely  see that that joy that you can get from surfing.  
AVS and uni kind of all came together at the same  time. So, Southern Cross was where I did my degree  in sport and exercise science and Masters in  Exercise Physiology. And a lot of veterans use  exercise physiology to help with their rehab of  musculoskeletal injuries, chronic illnesses and  also for their mental health. I've been out of  school for a long time. When I started my degree,  I needed that kind of reassurance and face-to-face  connection with my lecturers and they were all  amazing. The degree kind of helped me then be  able to assist the veterans not only, you know, with their mental health but also their  physical injuries as well. I love my job.

In the aftermath of war, former soldier Matthew Hoare is helping comrades find peace. Out on the ocean, Australian defence force veterans are riding the waves towards better mental and physical health – and a more certain future. 

For his commitment to the rehabilitation of the veteran community through ocean therapy, Matthew is Southern Cross University’s 2022 Alumnus of the Year.  

Matthew graduated with a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science and a Master of Exercise Physiology in 2017. Today, as co-founder of the Association of Veteran Surfers (AVS) on the Gold Coast, he applies his clinical knowledge to helping fellow veterans as they transition to life at home.  

“When military life ends, many veterans feel as though they lose their identity from when they served,” says Matthew. “Too often this can have dire results. 

“We are all aware of the high incidence of mental health issues and suicide among veterans. That is where AVS strives to be a point of understanding, collaboration, enjoyment and, hopefully, progress. It unites veterans with others who have been through similar experiences. That empathy is extremely important.” 

AVS launched in late-2015 with just a few members gathering for a monthly surf at Kirra. Since then, membership has grown so rapidly that AVS now has five branches operating from the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast down to Northern NSW and Sydney. Local surf clubs and RSL branches provide invaluable support. 

Time was when surfing helped Matthew’s own transition back to civilian life. He joined the Army at age 19 and served almost five years with the 8/9th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. He was deployed to what was then East Timor – now Timor-Leste – in 2010, and Afghanistan in 2012.  

Once out of uniform, he found surfing an ideal way to clear his head, find calm, think positively and commune with nature. Education was also crucial, bringing him to Southern Cross University in 2016. 

“My dad taught me to surf down at Palm Beach when I was five and I have found respite and rejuvenation on the waves ever since,” he says. “Being in nature is so positive. For a surfer, there is nothing to worry about but the next set; the next wave. Surfing is all about what happens next, not what has gone before, so it encourages focus and builds anticipation.  

“Yet while surfing is deeply rewarding as an individual, surfers also have a strong camaraderie. Many veterans can relate to that. Out there with a few mates, it is therapeutic. It alleviates stresses and troubles and can bring a sense of renewal that is affirming.”  

Matthew recalls the example of a good mate who telephoned him to say goodbye.  

“He was in a bad spot and planned to end his life. But I was able to get him down to the water with other veterans and that social connection saved his life.” 

Meanwhile, Matthew’s Southern Cross University degree translates well to his day job supporting private clients and people with a disability – again including veterans – with their rehabilitation and exercise prescription. 

“Exercise physiology was a natural choice for me,” he says. “I had always played sport and could see how exercise physiology was a way to use exercise to help people. I had some injuries after my service years and I wanted to assist people, especially veterans. That passion has continued to drive me and a lot of that is informed by my experience at Southern Cross University. 

“Because I was a veteran and had been away from education for so long, I felt I needed to be in an environment that enabled a closer connection to my lecturers and my fellow students. Southern Cross University was ideal. 

“And now, through surfing, I am sharing my passion and my qualifications with other veterans as a way to connect and to help them move forward with hope and healing.” 

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Alumni Impact Award recipients

Portrait of Holly Ahern

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Holly Ahern is a Lismore-based multidisciplinary artist with an interest in textiles, painting and large-scale sculpture. After her public artwork ‘In the Heart’ went viral following flood events in the Northern Rivers in February 2022, Holly used imagery of the sculpture to start a fundraiser for flood-affected artists, raising $20,000 in a matter of days.

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