Gus had been a ward of the state from the age of five. As he grew up, a welfare officer suggested a career in the defence forces. So, the mid-1970s, Gus joined up, partly because an army apprenticeship would be a good way of escaping his strict foster home.
He moved to Victoria for basic training when he was 16. Gus was told that his junior year was a special group – there was only one-third the number of seniors. They were also told the senior year ‘wouldn’t be leaving them alone’ while they were training.
The boys didn’t know what that meant. Then, a few weeks later, ‘the hell started’.
They were paired off so that one senior shared a room with one junior. It didn’t take Gus long to realise what he was in for. The seniors’ abuse of the juniors began almost immediately. It involved ‘violent, degrading, demeaning and perverted acts’, Gus wrote in a statement to the Royal Commission.
There was one group of seniors known as ‘The Circle’, who liked to play a game called Hangman. A junior would be forced naked into the common dirty laundry bag and hung by a rope for up to an hour. Every now and then the bag was spun around. Sometimes Gus, who only just fitted inside the bag, would vomit, but that didn’t mean he was allowed out.
His roommate was a Circle member, which meant the group frequently used Gus’s room to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana. They’d sometimes hide their drugs under his mattress, which caused him extreme anxiety. If the drugs had been found during a routine search, Gus would have been dishonourably discharged and sent home.
During the drinking sessions, a Circle member would climb onto Gus’s bed, press up against him and attempt to digitally penetrate him. ‘He would try through the sheets, or through my pyjamas and through my underwear. He would try to strip my bedding off me, my clothes and physically press himself onto me.’
If he went too far, the other members told the senior to stop. That didn’t stop them from threatening Gus with physical violence if he ever told anyone.
There were other games. Juniors were stripped and made to run naked on the parade ground. They had to go down on all fours in their underpants, or naked, while a senior walked across their backs. Gus’s roommate flicked lit cigarettes at him while he was showering.
Juniors didn’t ever report the abuse. ‘It was never spoken. That’s the thing. It was like a code of silence.’
‘You couldn’t go through the padre system, there was no welfare officer. All you were doing, if you were going to report something, was reporting it to the people who were running the actual experiment, as I call it. And that’s more or less what it was … an unauthorised experiment.’
Gus knows senior officers were aware of the abuse. He believes that intensive bullying was seen as a way of making better soldiers.
A couple of senior officers ‘took it to heart what was happening to us but they were sort of lost in the system as well’.
The torment went on for a year before the seniors moved out and Gus became a senior himself. However, later they had to share rooms with the same men again. ‘You still had those people with you so it was always in your face.’
By the third year, Gus and his mates could stand up for themselves.
Gus eventually left the army and went into the workforce. He believes he could have achieved more but has lacked confidence. ‘It really does affect you.’ He suffers from claustrophobia and post-traumatic stress disorder. His marriage has had its problems and he has only recently told his wife what happened to him.
He’s had some counselling but finds it too hard to open up. Things have been stored at the back of his mind for a long time. He doesn’t talk in detail about the abuse with his old army mates, not even the one who told him about the Royal Commission.
Gus hasn’t ever reported the abuse nor sought compensation. He might, but what really interests him is finding answers.
‘Answers as to why they came up with what they did and how they got away with it … They just let nature take its course.’