In his mid-teens, Roan set his sights on getting an apprenticeship with the Australian Army and he was thrilled when a year later he succeeded. Entering in 1981, Roan discovered that ‘things in the army weren’t exactly as they were laid out to be’, and victimisation of junior apprentices by seniors was commonplace.
In addition to harassment, Roan experienced several assaults in which older apprentices threw cleaning liquid over him while he was in the shower and then scrubbed his body with a bristle broom until his skin bled. ‘There was no oversight whatsoever by any of the company staff’, he said. He also had his locker broken into and ransacked which resulted in him being punished by his commander.
One day Roan decided it was all too much and he went AWOL from barracks. He hid for three weeks but was eventually found and sent back. Military police questioned him about his absence at the same time as asking what he knew about drug use on army premises. Roan told them about several other apprentices selling marijuana. He also reported the treatment he’d been subjected to. Soon afterwards, he was told by a commanding officer that his position had become ‘untenable’ and that if word got out he’d ‘grassed’, it would be the end of him.
‘He basically said, “Look, you’ve only got one option and that’s to get a discharge”. So there goes my career in one massive swoop.’
Roan told the Commissioner that a few days later he was walking in barracks when he was set upon by a group of seven men. One of them was a person he’d reported as selling marijuana. He was thrown down a flight of stairs, knocked unconscious and hospitalised for a week. Leaving hospital, he reported the assault to military police who recommended he go into protective custody. As a consequence, he was ordered to live in the flat of another military police officer for the two weeks before his discharge.
‘I was in that flat for no more than 30 minutes and he violently assaulted me: blackened my eye, punched me down to the ground and brutally sodomised me, to the extent that I was in a fair bit of pain. When I came to, he was in the shower so I picked myself up and went straight out the door’.
Returning to barracks, Roan reported the assault to a senior army officer who laughed and said, ‘Good luck with that one’.
Realising there was no one from whom he could get support, Roan didn’t mention the abuse again for over 30 years. His family noticed a drastic change when he returned to them and in a letter written to the Royal Commission, Roan’s father said he ‘lost the son we knew’. He wrote that he didn’t know what happened to Roan, but believed he needed help to overcome whatever it was.
‘My son was changed forever and I lost him when he came out of the army and this has caused not just him a great deal of pain; the whole family has been affected and continues to be affected.’
Roan described the impact of the abuse as profound. He’d married but the relationship didn’t last and he’d become estranged from his children. He lived alone, avoided social contact and through three decades he’d had ‘in excess of 60, 70 jobs’, because he was unable to ‘deal with people’.
After 34 years, Roan spoke out about the abuse when the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce (DART) invited submissions into sexual abuse within the armed services. Seeing senior army staff speak about it on television made him think, ‘I have to do it’, and he gave his account of being abused.
The change in culture under the then Chief of Army was a revelation, Roan said. ‘I can’t speak too highly of that man. He has made an enormous amount of difference. What he’s done in one year, the army could not do in 34. My understanding is that the army knew that things were crook in Tobruk down there in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and they did nothing about it.’
Following acceptance of his submission, Roan’s service record was revised to record a medical discharge. At the time of speaking with the Royal Commission he was in the process of accessing services through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. He’d been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and possible obsessive-compulsive disorder and had started seeing a counsellor.
‘[The abuse] was something that I hid deep within myself and it tore me apart for 34 years and I’m only just starting to come to terms with it. Only just, and I can see myself going the rest of my life where this is going to be hanging over my shoulder. I can see it. I know it’s going to be there all the time because there’s no way I’m going to be able to get rid of it.’
He hoped coming to the Royal Commission would be of help to others. ‘I rationalise it this way – if me speaking out can help put systems into place to prevent it from happening again, knowing what it does to people, that would be reward enough for me. I would die happy.’