J. Holley Watts was born in Rockville Centre, New York, and raised in Freeport. She graduated from Baldwin High School in 1962 and enrolled at Villanova University, but later transferred to Rosemont College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1966.
When her plans for the Peace Corps didn't work out, Watts volunteered for the American Red Cross and was sent to Vietnam as a member of the SRAO (Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas) program. Watts was primarily stationed in Da Nang, but moved around the country as a part of her recreation and "Donut Dolly" duties.
Upon returning home in September 1967, Watts worked for a short time at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia. She married Hal Watts and moved with him to California then Michigan, but later divorced. Watts has worked a wide range of jobs since her return from Vietnam, including as a piano technician and in public radio and TV broadcasting. She has since written two books documenting her experiences in the Vietnam War and co-written a documentary.