Noel grew up in Housing Commission homes and wanted to get out of that environment, so he left school and got his first job when he was 14.
‘I’d always wanted to get out, I suppose, of poverty and I thought the best way to do it, and my parents were very strict on discipline … I looked at the army and the air force, but I thought the army was probably the better proposition for me.’ Noel entered the army’s training centre in New South Wales in the early 1970s, just after his seventeenth birthday.
‘I wanted to get ahead … that was my aim in life.’
Noel did quite well during his 10 years in the army, ‘because I was prepared to put my head down and my tail up and study. And that’s what it’s all about’. However, his first two years were ‘really, a harrowing experience’.
At the training centre, Noel encountered an older recruit who had previous experience of military life outside Australia. ‘He wanted to run everything and rather than try and help us … he started turning the people against me in the hut.’
One night, ‘six of them … grabbed me and held me down on the bed, pulled my pants down and then started to apply boot polish all over me and all over my penis, all around my testicles, and all around my backside, which became very embarrassing and I was almost in tears, because I’d never … heard about anything like this before’.
The older recruit, who was the ringleader of the group, threatened Noel that if he told the duty corporal, ‘they’d physically assault me. I wouldn’t get away with it’. The recruits further embarrassed Noel by telling the entire platoon what they had done.
Being young and inexperienced, Noel didn’t know what to do, so he went to his sergeant and asked for a discharge. ‘I didn’t tell him why. I just said, “Things aren’t working out for me”.’ The sergeant refused.
‘He … failed his duty of care, because he should have given me the forms to fill out. Not saying I would have got it … but he should have gone by the process.’ Noel was unaware at the time that the correct process had been ignored.
Some weeks later, ‘four, five, six of them grabbed me again. In those days I used to write using ink … and they held me down on the bed and he grabbed hold of the ink, put the ink all over me. [It] went all over my belly, all over me thingos, made a mess all over the bed’. When he stood up, with ink dripping off him, the recruits were all laughing at him. ‘Once again they grabbed me and hung onto me and threatened me … if I [reported it].’
Noel didn’t see any other recruits being subjected to similar treatment. ‘A lady who was on TV … some months ago … was talking about these sort of things and I said … “There’s always one they’ll pick on. There’s always one”. And I seemed to be that one. Probably because I was very quiet and very probably inoffensive.’
Noel left the recruit training centre and went to the army apprentice school in Victoria. He began the course he was assigned to, but ‘I couldn’t study very well because I was being harassed by people down there. It followed me from [the training centre]’.
At night, trainees would come home drunk and enter Noel’s room. ‘They’d grab me and pull me out of bed, pummel me around and turn the bed over ... I told the sergeant … and he just walked away and did nothing about it … And this went on, and I was getting bad marks on the course.’ Noel was removed from the course and sent elsewhere.
Eventually, Noel was able to get his career on track, and he began receiving regular promotions. ‘I don’t give up. I don’t give up. If you give up you may as well go back, lie down and die, be done with it … Same with education. That’s why I decided to go back.’ After leaving the army, Noel successfully completed a degree at university.
Noel told the Commissioner, ‘I think the most significant impact [of the abuse] was that, “Why is that happening to me? What have I done to deserve this?” All I did was come into this army to learn a trade, a career, and progress. That’s all I wanted to do. And get an education, because I knew the army did all those things’.
Noel believes the abuse was able to occur because there was no supervision of recruits at night. ‘Nobody patrolled at a senior level.’ Later, when he was a sergeant and he told those under his command that there were to be no initiations or bastardisations, he received criticism from his seniors for being too close to his men.
Noel believes that there was a vendetta against him in the army, because when he applied for overseas service, he failed eight psychological assessments. ‘I said, pardon my French, “What the fuck am I still doing in the army if I failed all these tests?” There was no feedback in those days.’ During his 10 years in the army, Noel never saw any active service.
‘I didn’t [speak out] to start with because I was just a quiet kid from town, but then I did start to speak out, after what they did to me, I did speak out … I wanted to redress the wrongs. I won the battle, [but] I didn’t win the war.’