Rollie joined the navy in the 1970s, when he finished Year 10. His first posting as a junior recruit (JR) was to a base in Western Australia.
‘You were graded. When you get there … you get called a new grub. Then you get called a grub. Then you get called a shit. Then you get called a top shit.’
As soon as he arrived, Rollie found a culture of physical and sexual abuse, which later made national headlines as ‘bastardisation’. If there was one dirty uniform or untidy bunk, everyone would be punished. Rollie recalled questioning the fairness of this after a fellow JR got the entire squad into trouble.
‘And our divisional staff said, “Well, you’ve got to dish out the discipline within”. That’s part of the group mentality, I suppose, to look after your own.
Rollie remembered a time when a couple of the big men took a recruit and ‘scrubbed him in the showers, not just with scrubbing brushes but with heavy sort of brooms until he was basically red raw, and then they blackballed him. Now, blackballing was done to indicate, because we had communal showers, was to indicate somebody who was a grub. And hopefully it would never happen again.’
‘And it wasn’t just the water-based boot polish. It was actually heavy boot polish … very difficult and painful [to get off], and that’s one of the reasons they marked these people … Our divisional staff … just said that was part of growing up and getting discipline and getting us ready to go to sea as a 17-year-old.’
‘That JR left the navy. And that certainly had an effect.’
Rollie also recalled being punished for ‘mucking around’ after lights out. ‘We were told to strip off and made to crab walk up the hill … which is on the back of your hands, back of your feet ... for about 40 minutes, 50 minutes, in the cold with no clothes on … We were just kids.’
There was sanctioned violence too where recruits were sent into a boxing ring without headgear or mouthguards, and bashed each other into submission.
Anyone who complained would be ostracised by the rest of the squad. ‘You didn’t question the division above you. You never questioned. You were at the bottom of the heap.’
Soon after Rollie received his first posting, his father had a serious accident. ‘They wouldn’t send me home. They basically left me on the ship. And no support. I cried a lot, in my bed.’
Rollie was eventually allowed to visit his father in hospital a week before he died. ‘I still think to this day that he hung on because he was the one that actually … put me on the ship with my kitbag and took me there. Yeah, I think he just hung on because he knew I was away. I still think about that to this day.’
When Rollie was 17, his ship was deployed to south-east Asia. The senior sailor appointed to be his mentor or ‘sea daddy’, took him ashore, got him drunk and paid a prostitute to take his virginity.
There were also the infamous ‘crossing the line’ ceremonies, for sailors who had never been across the equator. ‘They rounded up all the people that hadn’t crossed the line … If you tried to hide, they made the punishment – and it was punishment – worse. They used to mix up a cocktail of anything and everything; slops from the galley, bilge water … and they’d brush it in your hair and they’d put it in places that you didn’t really want it go, down your pants. And the whole ship’s company was there, except for the people on watch.’
‘There were still these older generations and older thoughts around in that period, to the extent where they’d walk down the passageway naked with a toothbrush put somewhere, and there were open showers, and make those sort of crude and rude remarks, “Don’t drop the soap in the showers” … They were just hard men.’
Rollie served in the navy for two decades, and said ‘there were probably more good parts than bad parts’. But recently he’s been struggling with the impact of his first few years as a JR. There has been a number of incidents that have caused the memories to resurface, in particular, seeing a photograph of the recruit who was brutalised into leaving the navy.
Rollie said he’s having flashbacks ‘all the time now’, and is on medication for PTSD.
‘I think the biggest issue I’ve got at the moment is my drinking … I use that to block out a lot of things … I’ve got high blood pressure, constantly for two years, basically because stuff’s been eating away at me.’
When he came to the Royal Commission, Rollie said that he was about to have his first session with a psychiatrist ‘to talk about the issues that I’m experiencing at the moment. And I’m going to be asking for some more counselling’.
He believes that 17- or 18-year-olds are too young to join the navy, and junior recruits should have more maturity. They must also be ‘fostered and mentored’ by superiors who’ve had proper training.
They also need ‘better preparation for when they get to sea, because it’s hard out there … You’ve got to prepare someone for that. They could post onto a ship and the ship deploys for six months, take them away from their family … What sort of support do you have on the ship? We had a sea daddy who was supposed to look after you, take you under their wing. Are they right people to do that? Who do you pick?’
Rollie has never thought about compensation. His priorities now are his family, and his mental health.
‘I just want to close that chapter.’