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Leigh Kenneth's story

‘If you’ve come here to fucking whinge - piss off and harden up.’

According to a written statement Leigh provided to the Commission, that’s what he was told by his superior at the Australian Defence Force training base he attended at the age of 15. Leigh had approached this staff member to report a crime. Because of this rebuff, Leigh didn’t disclose that he had been dragged from his bed at night by older recruits and violently sexually assaulted by them. It would be about another 25 years before Leigh spoke about it again.

Leigh came from a ‘loving and supportive family’. He became a recruit in the early 1970s. By the time he had been there several months he had been brutally assaulted in the toilets a number of times by the same group of senior recruits. Part of the violence was to insert a broom handle in Leigh’s rectum.

Leigh once saw another boy, clearly distressed, running from the toilets with blood coming down his legs. But a staff member turned a blind eye. When Leigh was a senior recruit himself, he refused to bash the ‘new grubs’.

When Leigh finished his training, at the age of 17, he went on a short assignment in Vietnam. He left the Australian Defence Force after about 10 years, to be closer to his wife and children.

Since the abuse, Leigh has suffered buttock and bowel problems. He has nightmares and doesn’t sleep well. He could be very controlling in his family relationships – and aggressive. As his wife, Deborah, wrote in a statement she provided to the Commission, ‘I feel that Leigh's problems started to be more obvious once he left the [Defence Force], and we tried to establish a civilian life’.

‘For years I'd tell Leigh he needed to go and see someone, but I didn't know what type of someone. I knew there was a big problem with him, but I didn't know what the cause was or what would fix him. He'd deny it and say, “There's nothing wrong with me”. I'd say, “There is something wrong with you, there is something seriously wrong”.’

Although Deborah considered leaving Leigh a number of times, she didn’t.

‘What this woman has had to put up with for 40 years of our marriage is unbelievable’, Leigh told the Commissioner. ‘She should have left me a long time ago. But she stuck by me every time.’

Some years ago Leigh disclosed the abuse to Deborah. They thought there might be a connection between the assaults and Leigh’s bowel problems. However, they didn’t know what help to seek and Leigh didn’t disclose the abuse to his doctor.

In the late 1990s Leigh was awarded a Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Pension from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. During the assessment process, he was diagnosed with PTSD and alcohol dependence, both found to be related to his service in Vietnam. Again, Leigh hadn’t disclosed the sexual abuse he experienced as a recruit.

As Deborah wrote in her statement, ‘Once he had a diagnosis, Leigh was of course able to access treatment … including clinics, and detox programs, seeing psychiatrists and psychologists. So there's been quite a lot of support for him … but none of that really helped his family to cope with it. It's been very hard for us – we've had to live with the consequences day in and day out … we've been left high and dry in terms of support for us’.

Life continued to be difficult for Leigh and his symptoms continued. In more recent years, he attempted suicide.

In 2014 Leigh saw a report on television about sexual abuse within the Australian Defence Force Academy. He decided to seek redress. ‘The monetary side is immaterial. I’m not well. I have a lot of health issues … If I did get money from that mediation it was to relocate because I need to be near big hospitals.’

Leigh contacted the Defence Abuse Report Team (DART), the existence of which he only learned about on the TV program. But he was distressed to be told he had missed the cut-off date. None of the other veterans he was in contact with had even heard of DART, let alone registered with them. ‘And also, with DART, they don’t believe your story. They want proof and … proof of sexual abuse is very hard.’

Leigh engaged a lawyer and went ahead with a mediation process with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA). At mediation he was told that if he ‘took one dollar’ by way of compensation, he would have to repay the Defence Department all that he had received from them, including his disability pension. For Leigh this would far outweigh the value of the compensation. It seemed unfair. As Leigh’s psychiatrist said to him, ‘You’re being treated for PTSD for Vietnam and you’ve got PTSD from sexual abuse … How can they separate which you’re going to have a nightmare about? … I, as a psychiatrist, can’t separate them. How can they separate them?’

On top of that Leigh’s lawyers, at the mediation, encouraged him to sign a deed saying he wouldn’t go ahead with a further claim to the DVA. Leigh was told that unless he signed the deed, his lawyers wouldn’t be paid their fee. Later, Leigh learned that this was untrue but, at the time, he didn’t want his lawyers to go unpaid so he signed the deed.

‘I walked out with less rights than I walked in the mediation with.’

As Deborah recalls of that day, ‘I think [DVA] relied very heavily on their restorative justice … by presenting Leigh with an apology letter … and the words were … it was “going to make everything better and that you [Leigh] were going to feel so wonderful after you read this letter”’.

It was a form letter. It did not make Leigh feel better.

Leigh was also told he was not to show this letter to anyone outside his family.

‘At the end of mediation I ended up with nothing anyway but the lawyer … assisting Defence Department stood up and said, “We accept what happened to you but you’ve got to understand we are not responsible for the actions of others”. Now I find that ridiculous … Of course they’re responsible for what people do …

‘I went back to my hotel and I just bawled my eyes out.’

Much of what had occurred was deemed to be unlawful, Leigh said. He now has a new solicitor. ‘It’s been a shocking couple of years. I’ve been an absolute basket case over it.’

When Leigh decided to bring his case forward he and Deborah went to a psychologist specialising in working with people who’d experienced sexual abuse. It was the first time Leigh had spoken to anyone other than Deborah about the abuse. As Deborah recalls, ‘We sat in her office and she asked about Leigh’s behaviours and it was like a light was turned on because … there was a reason why he was displaying these behaviours. And she said “That’s what we call protective behaviours.”’ It explained, for example, why Leigh always had a baseball bat under the bed.

After disclosing to the psychiatrist, Leigh told his adult children and his mother. His mother apologised for sending him to the academy in the first place. She felt responsible.

‘I’m really sorry how it’s affected my eldest son. I was really hard on him’, Leigh told the Commissioner. ‘He’s into drugs now and I blame me for some of it because of the hard teenage years I gave him, to not let him go anywhere or do anything because I was scared what would happen to him.’

Living in a regional area, Leigh drives for hours to get to therapy. Deborah says the therapy has helped but Leigh still has ‘big issues’.

‘I love this country and … I loved serving the country … I don’t regret serving but I wish my teenage years had been a bit different.’

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