‘I’m here because it’s taken me 64 years for me to be here from when I lodged my first complaint … It’s too late to cry but it’s ruined my life and everybody around me. So to be here is tremendous … My main purpose is to bring to account those people who haven’t been brought to account at all. And that’s management. I’m not here for benefit for me.’
Following in his father’s footsteps, Bob joined the defence forces as a junior recruit around 1950. Barely in his teens, Bob signed an indentured bond which obliged him to stay with the force for the next 22 years. If he wanted to leave before his mid-30s, he or his family would have to pay out the bond.
Within weeks of joining his training college, Bob was ‘tortured’ and ‘raped’ by groups of senior recruits who carried out acts of sexual assault as a form of ‘initiation’. The acts included the ‘Indian club’ – anal insertion of a honey-covered stick – and ‘blackballing’ – covering his genitals with boot polish. Some other boys tried to stop the assaults, without success.
Bob reported the abuse to his immediate superiors, but with no complaint procedures in place, nothing was done. No counselling or support was offered, but Bob later learned that the incident had at least been recorded on his medical file. Bob would complain about other incidents in the future, but these too were ignored, or sometimes met with the threat of court martial.
The following year, ‘initiations’ were not committed against the new intake of recruits. ‘But guess what? Those bastards came and got us.’ Bob was assaulted two years running, possibly because he and other boys had complained the year before.
Bob’s years in the service also exposed him to much institutional physical abuse. This included being tied down and made to eat food slops, being badly injured during uncontrolled boxing matches, and being beaten on bare skin with gym shoes. The senior officers were fully aware of the abuse of the younger recruits, and condoned it.
Bob wanted to leave the force, but his family could not afford to pay out the bond, so his father told him to stick it out. Feeling trapped and imprisoned, Bob tried numerous times to resign or be dismissed, before deciding that he needed to accept his lot and excel. ‘I had to beat it. I had to beat the shame’, he said. Bob went on to attain high rank, but remained at odds with the entrenched culture of bullying and harassment.
Bob was never offered counselling by the defence force. He sought out counselling during some overseas postings in the 1960s, and disclosed the abuse during these sessions, but he found these experiences to be of little help.
When Bob left the defence force in the 1970s, he was suffering from depression and took heavy sedative medication that blunted the pain and the memories. He struggled with his everyday survival, saw the end of his first marriage, and lost contact with his children.
Bob has also been suicidal on more than one occasion. ‘It gets at me because due process has failed’, he said.
When Bob met his current wife about 10 years ago, she told him that he was a ‘zombie’ and encouraged him to get off the medication and get his life in order. He disclosed the abuse to her, and has her support, as well as that of a good counsellor, David Mayhew, who accompanied Bob to his private session.
David offered the view that the defence force is still not set up to provide medical assistance or compensation to victims of abuse. The institution denies that there is a problem, does not keep records, and routinely denies the claims of veterans. David said that ‘this kind of compounds the problems they’ve experienced because now they’re being told basically that that they’re lying’.
At great cost to his health, Bob has become an advocate for veterans who are seeking recognition and an apology. ‘I hounded the Director General who’s supposed to look after those things within defence. I hounded defence resolution people. Look, they were all hounded because they can’t get away with this sort of thing!’
Despite the abuse he experienced, Bob is a ‘survivor’ who managed to do well in the profession he took up after he left the defence force. ‘I’ve clawed my way up there and said “Bugger all of that. I’m going to win!” - And I have.’