Ken Michael's story

‘I didn’t want to admit to meself what was causing it, my anger, moods. Which I probably should of, straight off when it all started hitting the media, and maybe that might have helped.’

For most of his life, Ken kept silent about the sexual abuse he’d experienced at a training base for navy recruits. Ken had arrived there in the 1960s when he was 16 years old, and at first he thought the place was ‘fantastic’. The work was hard, but Ken didn’t mind that, and he felt he was learning a lot.

Then he began to notice another ‘system’ operating beneath the official navy procedures. The more experienced recruits meted out punishments to the new arrivals: sometimes a boy accused of poor hygiene would be dragged to the showers and scrubbed with brooms and chemicals until he bled, or those who were considered ‘loud mouths’ were forced to ‘run the gauntlet’ between two rows of boys who bashed them as they went past.

Early on, Ken felt confident that he could avoid these sorts of attacks. ‘I thought, “Well I’m pretty right”. I had good hygiene, I kept me head down, I did what I had to do.’

So he was surprised when two boys grabbed him one night and hauled him off to the showers. He could tell by their uniforms that they were recruits, but otherwise had no idea who they were because the boys were wearing masks.

A third masked boy was waiting for them at the showers. Ken assumed that the three of them were about to give him a scrubbing. But the boys didn’t put him under the water; instead they threw him on the floor and held him down ‘and one of them masturbates me till I ejaculate ... and then they just left’.

Ken, who had been raised in a small Catholic community and knew nothing about sex, didn’t know what to think. ‘I just laid there.’ Eventually he decided that he had to do something. His first priority was to conceal the incident from his mates back up at the dorm. ‘So I jumped in the shower and got all wet and went up and just told the guys they scrubbed me. Well, they couldn’t work out why I’d get scrubbed.’

Ken was just as baffled. Fifty years later he still doesn’t know why he was attacked.

The morning after the incident Ken reported it to two men who were in charge of the recruits. ‘And they just said, “Look, you want a naval career, the best thing for you, Ken, is just to forget it”. And that was the answer I got. And, you know, that’s not easy to do: forget it.’

A few days later the recruits were sent home for the holidays. Ken did not mention the incident to his parents, but his mother sensed that something was wrong. ‘Me mother said to me, “You’ve changed. You’ve really changed”. And I just said, “Oh, look, I’ve got a big six months in front of me, Mum”.’

Ken finished his training and went on to work in the navy for several years. Early on in his service he ‘took to the drink big time’. Things got worse when he first left the navy. ‘I never realised what a security blanket the navy was, because I was still drinking and it was a lot harder in the civilian stream to do it.’

But he and his new wife moved interstate and built a good life that lasted many years.

‘And then it all changed again, five, six years ago with all the child abuse [publicity] and everything. It got to me. And I was – yeah, I was terrible. As I say, how me wife did it, I don’t know.’

Ken ended up disclosing the abuse to a psychiatrist and some staff from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA). He mentioned a few things to his wife, too, but not in detail. He spoke to his GP and was prescribed some medication that has calmed him down and helped him quit drinking.

Ken also applied to DVA to get some more psychological support. At the time of his private session with the Royal Commission, two and a half years had passed and he was still waiting for the application to be finalised.

Ken said he has been through enough paperwork ‘to wallpaper a house’. He was critical of such bureaucratic complexity, saying that it discourages veterans from pursuing the services they need.

‘I don’t blame DVA. But governments – they’re quick to come out and thank the troops and be there when the ship comes home and all that, but a lot of them [veterans] need looking after, there’s no doubt. I mean, there’s a lot more worse than me.’

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