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Larry John's story

‘For my whole life I’ve got by simply pretending that I’m okay. And I don’t want to pretend anymore … Sometimes … I’m watching TV and [my wife] glances over at me and she says, “Why are you so sad?” Being a fellow, molested by fellows, you really don’t want to talk about it.’

Larry joined the army as an apprentice in Victoria in the early 1970s, when he was 14. Two junior apprentices slept in each room in the army huts, and these rooms were called ‘dongas’. After his roommate was discharged after the first few weeks, Larry slept alone for the rest of his first year. ‘[This] made me an easy target for the abuse that I later suffered.’

Junior apprentices soon learned that they had to do what the seniors ordered them to do. ‘I didn’t mind this, as I understood it was part of testing us out as soldiers. However, what I didn’t like was the physical beatings we received if we didn’t do what we were told.’

Senior apprentices were often drunk in the evenings, and there was no supervision in the huts on weekends. On one occasion one of the seniors punched Larry hard in the chest, knocking him to the ground. When Larry asked him why he’d done it, the senior replied, ‘“No reason”. I was shocked and in pain’.

Another time, Larry was held down by six senior apprentices while the others ‘beat the shit out of me’. He couldn’t report it to his hut corporal, because the corporal was one of those who beat him.

Larry was also subjected to regular sexual abuse. He would wake up in his donga and find one or more seniors standing there. They would grab and pull at his genitals, a game they called ‘gotcha’. They would tip his bed over, so that he fell out, a practice that was known as ‘arseholing’. This happened nearly every night.

‘I would lay awake at night … with my hands over my genitals to protect myself … I would lay there terrified, waiting for them to come in. I knew I couldn’t do anything to stop them and no one was there to protect me.’ As an adult, Larry slept for many years with his hands over his genitals.

Larry was scared that if he reported the abuse, it would get worse. He was also concerned because, ‘homosexuality was a dischargeable offence in the military back then, so there were concerns there could be some connotations there, and why was I targeted? You don’t know’. In his mind, the beatings he received ‘weren’t such a bad thing after all, because there’s worse things that can happen to you’.

After Larry began the process to apply for compensation for the abuse he experienced in the armed forces, he was required to undergo psychiatric assessment. The psychiatrist diagnosed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

This diagnosis embarrassed Larry, because, ‘I haven’t had active service … You feel as if you don’t deserve to have PTSD. It’s something that makes you feel quite uncomfortable. That’s how I feel’. He was also diagnosed with unspecified anxiety, depressive and alcohol disorders. He has recently begun taking anti-depressants and is seeing a counsellor.

His counsellor has helped him understand that ‘what happened to me was not my fault. I was a victim of circumstance. I hid behind a mask most of my life … Now that mask is peeling off. I have a lifelong bout of depression and sadness … To admit to myself that I have been suffering from depression was a big thing for me … because I’ve been trying not to admit it’.

After his first sessions with his counsellor, Larry began reflecting on his past, ‘and how I used to be filled with anger and rage and how I was at a loss as to what provoked those feelings. I also understand triggers now … I can’t listen to certain songs that used to play on the radio … I also realise now what an arsehole I was during my first marriage.’

Larry also began to recognise the impact the abuse had on his military career. ‘I used to fly below the radar … for the remainder of my military career, [and this was] was detrimental to my promotion prospects … I had enjoyed being in the military, but the abuse led to doubts about myself and my suitability to remain in the army.’ He believes he would have had a longer military career if he had not been abused.

While in the army he saw a psychiatrist a number of times. ‘I was feeling very depressed and unmotivated … and simply wanted to hide under a rock. I found it difficult to socialise with people.’

Larry was prompted to come forward to the Royal Commission after watching a television program in 2014 about sexual abuse in the Australian defence forces.

‘It invoked feelings of anger inside me and disbelief that it’s still happening … I decided then that enough’s enough … and the authorities need to be aware that this has been occurring within the ADF for decades … If people don’t speak up, then change will never happen.’

Larry told the Commissioner, ‘Being bullied, sexually and physically abused, condemns the survivor to a lifelong sentence of mental malaise, where we suffer in silence with bouts of sadness, depression, anger and anxiety. We suffer in silence because we don’t want to admit these states of mind …

‘It’s a long road to recovery, to unravel the mind that is full of self-doubt and a myriad of other mental complications. Being bullied and abused does not build character, rather it destroys it, and it’s time it’s stamped out in the military.’

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