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Gavan Keith's story

‘I had no idea what I was in for.’

Gavan led a ‘sheltered’ life, growing up in suburban Sydney in the 1960s. It was school, TV and early bedtimes. ‘As a child I didn’t know what sexual abuse was … If I was to tell my mother now she would be horrified.’

At 15, Gavan was one of a select group of trade apprentices entering the Australian Army as junior recruits. They were ‘bussed off’ to Melbourne and when they got off the bus ‘they start yelling at you … We were only kids, really’. When not actually studying their trades, the junior recruits were taught by Vietnam vets. Although these were well decorated soldiers, they were not trained to educate children. Gavan now thinks that these were possibly the jobs given to returned soldiers who were not adjusting to army life.

The recruits were housed in lines of huts, which were open-plan with open showers. There was no privacy. The junior recruits shared premises with the senior recruits, who would ‘treat you like crap’. There was a culture of ‘mob mentality’ and ‘bastardisation’.

A year later, Gavan’s intake became senior recruits themselves. ‘I come back into this hut one day and there was two guys [in] my year … they had this junior … held down on the bed … with his pants pulled down … trying to, you know, arouse him with a feather duster … This poor kid, you know, he was breaking out in a sweat … This was the middle of the day … The [two seniors] just thought it was a joke. And you sort of think “Fuck … what’s going on here? … God, I hope that doesn’t happen to me”. But it was like a regular thing.’ Gavan remembers the two abusers were ‘big guys, cricket players’.

Gavan was a bit older than most of the boys in his year as he had repeated a year in primary school. He thinks this might have protected him. ‘I don’t class myself as a victim … because I don’t think anything really that bad happened to me.’ However, Gavan was abused.

‘This is one that happened to me … When it was your birthday or … you did something wrong, they would go up to the … kitchen, get worcestershire sauce, tomato sauce … make up this mess … They’d grab you and they take you down to the fire hydrant … pull your shirt up, pull your pants down, tip this mess all over you. Chuck you on the hydrant and … leave you there … Some guys … end up with … irritations and burns and stuff.’

The boys were largely unsupervised. ‘The real army guys, who were supposed to be in charge of us … all they wanted to do is yell at you … We were pretty much left to our own devices.’ In the evenings, Gavan remembers there would be just one sergeant on duty who would ‘watch TV all night’. He believes the sergeants would have known what was happening but ‘turned a blind eye’.

Gavan left the army after two years and ‘shelved’ his experiences there. He didn’t report the abuse to anyone. ‘Not only the sexual abuse but … the bastardisation, the threats … there was no one … Not like now where we’ve got all these, like, support groups … there was just no one there.’ Among other paths, Gavan had an extensive career within the police force. He feels his experiences there overshadowed those of his army days. ‘I’ve seen enough death to last me a lifetime.’

He has undergone a small amount of therapy which he found helpful. Recently, he told his brother about the abuse in the army.

‘You sort of think back now, you know. Why didn’t I do something? … It wasn’t just a one-off. It was just … constant.’ He can ‘still see this guy sweating’.

Gavan spoke about his reasons for coming to the Royal Commission. ‘It’d be good to, sort of, get my side of the story because I sort of figure that it’s probably, people who were … victims, that … I [am] probably helping them now where I didn’t help them back then.’

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