‘The culture in cadets is kind of this grey area and people aren’t sure whether it’s a youth organisation or a military organisation … There’s a whole culture of protecting themselves and sticking with each other and it feels like a club and even … later on, that’s what it felt like, I kind of felt on the outer.’
When she was in her early teens, Tamsin joined the cadets. She enjoyed the camaraderie and the focus on learning skills and serving the community. There were about 50 cadets in the unit, ranging in age from 12 and a half to 20 years of age, most of whom were male.
The cadet unit was run by an older man who employed strict discipline. Tamsin felt that she ‘constantly had to prove myself to him. I tried to be a good cadet, but he was dismissive and preferred and promoted male cadets’.
Through the cadets, Tamsin pursued further study which involved spending a number of weeks throughout the year at a defence base being taught by military staff. While there she was under the authority of a commanding officer she had never met before and knew no one else on the course.
Tamsin found the supervision of students who were under the age of 18 to be lax on the base and that while ‘fraternisation’ between staff and cadets, and cadets and cadets, was frowned upon, ‘there were opportunities for this to occur’.
Tamsin studied hard and excelled at her course. Though in her mid-teens she did occasionally struggle with the emotional demands of being on a base and of the training itself. At one point she asked for assistance from a military staff member, a man she didn’t know but who she respected because of his rank. The man was in his 20s or early 30s and Tamsin told the Commission that he ‘was very comforting. He gave me his mobile phone number and told me that if I ever needed help, I could call or text him …
‘At the time, I thought it was a bit weird because there was a clear distinction between staff and cadets, and we were also not meant to have or use mobile phones during the course.’
Tamsin texted the man to thank him for his support and he responded. They began communicating via text message. Tamsin found herself socially on the outer with her training unit and she asked for support from the man again. This time he took her back to her room and began touching and stroking her inappropriately. She asked him to leave but he didn’t, instead trying to take her shirt off. Finally, after Tamsin kept resisting his advances, he left.
‘I didn’t see [him] again, but he continued to text me on a weekly basis. On a few occasions, he sent me photos of his penis and asked me to have sex with him and send photos of myself to him.’
The assault was very distressing to Tamsin. She ‘started talking back’ and developed ‘a bad attitude’. The commanding officer instructed her to attend an informal counselling session with a senior staff member. In the session Tamsin disclosed she felt ‘uncomfortable’ around some of the other staff and cadets but the man told her that ‘This shouldn’t affect your behaviour’. The man made no enquiries to understand why Tamsin felt uncomfortable. She was demoted as a consequence.
‘The whole way through I was upset about how things were turning out … when I got demoted … everyone was saying “Why don’t you just leave?” and I was like, “Because I really enjoy it and I really still want to be a part of this” … All I wanted to do was stay in to try and fix things and then the more I tried to fix things the worse it kind of got.’
When she was back at her own cadet unit, Tamsin told a senior cadet about her abuse and the fact that the man was still texting her. The cadet, who was about 18 or 19 years old, didn’t take any action and began to use the information ‘kind of like leverage for him to use later against me …
‘[He] … forced me to give him oral sex. I didn’t know what to do and felt that I had to do what he wanted … I felt obligated.’
There was very little adult supervision of the unit as the senior cadets conducted all the training and drills. Tamsin felt she had no one to discuss her situation with within cadets and her relationship with her parents was difficult. She began to self-harm and skip both school and cadets. She was reprimanded and disciplined by her unit commanding officer, with no questions asked about why her behaviour had changed.
Tamsin now understands that she would have been reluctant to open up about her abuse to anyone within the defence force.
‘Even if there was an opportunity for me to talk about what had happened, I lacked courage at the time because it was ingrained in me early on that as a cadet, you had to follow the chain of command and couldn’t speak to staff normally.’
Her mental health further deteriorated and she was asked to leave the cadets.
‘All I wanted to do was join the Defence Force and now, even though I know that that’s not going to happen, I still struggle to accept that it’s not going to happen and something that I worked towards for so long is no longer possible.’
The man who had initially abused her continued to text her for years afterwards. It wasn’t until Tamsin got an iPhone that she could block him. ‘I didn’t feel comfortable saying no to him but I didn’t want to talk to him anymore’.
Tamsin was pleased that the Royal Commission held a public hearing into the defence forces. She has read the transcripts of the hearing and felt validated by the survivors who spoke out.
‘It was kind of good in a way that other people were hearing it and confirming it.’
Tamsin now has a new career and is excited for her future but worries about other young people interested in joining cadets. She told the Commission that, ‘I don’t want people to be placed in the same situation that I was’.
‘People should be able to report their concerns safely and not be judged for what they’re saying. Cadets is a youth organisation … In my view, I don’t think that men from the military who have an ‘old school’ style are the right people to lead a unit of young people. It creates a culture where it seems almost acceptable for things to go unnoticed and unreported. This may have been the way of the military in the past, but a man who has spent his whole life in the army doesn’t necessarily know how to run a unit of 13-year-olds.’