‘The thing is, you’ve gotta remember I’ve spent the past 30-odd years desperately trying to forget all this. And now I’m trying to remember it and that’s weird. I can remember the faces, as clear as a bell, but do you think I can remember most of the names? I just can’t. I’ve done a really good job of forgetting some of it. But not all of it. Or not enough of it.’
Spurred by a family tradition of serving in the armed forces, and his own love of naval history, Tarrant joined up in the late 70s, at the age of 16.
‘At the time of the Cold War there were no hot or even warm conflicts going on … If you wanted to do something really interesting, you joined the navy, you became a communications tech, you got on a submarine and you got to go spying. You got to snoop around, undetected, intercepting radio communications and deciphering them.’
Tarrant said that his first six months of training in New South Wales went well, and there was none of the infamous ‘bastardisation’ of new recruits. ‘Then you went home on your first leave and when you came back it became “Lord of the Flies”.’
In a statement provided to the Royal Commission, Tarrant wrote, ‘I was gradually picked on more and more … Somehow I became the butt of jokes and a byword for stuff-ups, real or imagined. It seemed everyone wanted to have a go at me’.
One day, he was approached in the showers by two naked, older apprentices. The first, who had an erection, threatened Tarrant with violent sexual assault if he didn’t shape up. The second made sure Tarrant couldn’t get away.
‘They’d left me in no doubt at all that this was going to happen to me. And I wouldn’t know where and I wouldn’t know when.
‘I actually formulated a plan, that if these guys did have another go, that I was going to have to kill them.’
During this time the bastardisation became increasingly worse. Tarrant was regularly bashed by fellow sailors, ‘never one on one, it was always a pack against me’. On one occasion, when his head was pushed into a sewer pit, he thought he was going to drown.
The physical abuse culminated when Tarrant was assigned to a maintenance team doing welding around the base. Without gloves or mask, he was routinely subjected to electric shocks by two senior sailors who ‘thought it was hilarious’.
By this time Tarrant said he’d ‘lost the plot … I was performing so poorly, I was getting locker searched by naval police and they were looking for drugs. Because they were convinced that no one could be as dopey as I was, unless I was smoking marijuana.
‘I wasn’t doing bloody drugs. I was just staggering from one disaster to the next. And what, they couldn’t figure out that there was something wrong?
‘There was no one I could trust. Tried to tell Mum and Dad, they didn’t want to hear.’
A little over two years after joining the navy, Tarrant was discharged and told to leave the base immediately.
‘I’m looking in the rear-view mirror of the Holden back at that main gate, and I’m sitting there going, “So this is what it’s like either to be released from prison, or being released as a prisoner of war”.’
For the next 10 years Tarrant said his life was ‘just shit’. ‘I basically smoked a lot of marijuana, drank a lot of alcohol and bounced from job to job to job ... I drove trucks as well, 'cause I picked the most macho job I could think of.
‘How the hell I didn’t end up dead, I don’t know. 'Cause I would push it right to the line.
‘I never settled down, I never really made a proper living, and now pretty much I’m consigned to a life of poverty, I s’pose. But at least I’m still alive.’
When he came to the Royal Commission, Tarrant was working for an advocacy group that helps men and women who were sexually abused in the military.
‘Defence does not want to know about us. We have some sideways contacts into Defence, unofficially, and we have been labelled, casually, by senior members of Defence as “elfs” ... and that stands for “evil little fuckers”.
‘Within our organisation I’m well-known for saying that I think Defence is a bit like the Catholic Church. I’m not entirely sure that they’re sorry, they’re just sorry they got caught.
‘The same structural defects in the ADF [Australian Defence Force] that existed in the 60s, and the 70s and the 80s and the 90s, still exist today ... Nothing has changed.
‘I would call it a “permissive culture of abuse”. There may be active cells but mostly it’s a culture that just permits it to happen.
‘This is people looking after other people. You talk about paedophile rings; these people are running paedophile rings in, say, the context of the Churches that the Commission’s looked at.’
Tarrant said he has come to realise that the impact of the abuse will probably always be with him. But advocating for other survivors is part of his ‘redemption’.
‘The thing that would finally help me be at peace would be to see and know that Defence has had that proper cultural change … If I saw that, and knew that it was fair dinkum, I think I’d finally say, “Well, my work here is done”. I’d be able to let it rest.’