Terrance's story

‘I can only speak from a point of view, I believe, of a young person going into the military to protect and defend their country, that our enemies have to be seen as those – well, they are domestic and foreign at times – but we don't abuse our own. That undermines everything, in my opinion. That just undermines all trust, all respect.’

Terrance joined the navy in the early 1970s, during the Vietnam War, when he was 15.

He said there was a culture of bullying and intimidation throughout his training, especially perpetrated on young recruits by older servicemen. Much of this revolved around sexually explicit language and behaviour, exposure to hard-core pornographic material, and frequent abuses such as having your genitals rubbed with toothpaste or boot polish, or having your head held in a toilet bowl while it was being flushed. Every time something happened, Terrance and other recruits were threatened with violence if they resisted or complained.

‘I believe that there was a culture of child abuse at [the base] that was concealed by the Department of Defence, and even to this day by the Department of Veterans Affairs … I believe that there are things that the government has put away because it is just too politically embarrassing. 

‘But it affects you … if it wasn’t you that was being done over at night, so to speak, with boot polish or toothpaste on your genitals, it was other people’s cries that you heard in other cubicles.’

As distressing as the constant sexual overtones were, other events, both during his training and after, were worse. Once when Terrance went to visit his weekend sponsor, his sponsor invited him to have sex with his girlfriend, leaving Terrance feeling upset and threatened. He was sexually assaulted by a uniformed officer on the night of his 17th birthday. A different officer would often find him in the hallways and rub himself against him.

On one occasion Terrance was encouraged to get very drunk with other recruits and woke up to find himself being photographed in bed with other people, including several other male navy personnel. On board ship one time, two drunk servicemen attempted to rape him, although they were interrupted.

‘You couldn’t complain. You couldn’t be seen to be a sick bay jockey. If you had aches or pains or whatever you lived with them … I do believe it was a form of conditioning and it was a form of control of giving in without, say, questioning at all anybody else’s decision as to what you would do.’

All these events left Terrance feeling deep shame and embarrassment, and he often self-medicated with alcohol and cannabis. When he was 19, he was caught smoking pot, and when he was charged, he used it as a way of getting out of the navy.

‘I couldn't talk about the rapes and the other sexual things. Homosexuality was illegal. You were seen as a poofter … 

‘You had to have an officer defend you, like the judicial system within the navy. And he said, “You can use this to get out”. He said, “Just tell the Captain you’re going to keep smoking pot and that you’ve used this and that” … In my papers I was described psychologically as “weak willed, immature and a non-entity”, when I was discharged. Which made me feel, when I found that out, almost like a piece of soiled rag or something discarded.’

Over the years, Terrance suffered nightmares and intrusive thoughts. There were times when he was suicidal. He didn’t seek medical help, instead using alcohol and cannabis to block things out. He found it very difficult to have trusting and loving relationships, and had two marriages and a number of children before meeting his current wife. She was the first person he told, after she had revealed her own childhood abuse.

‘I lived with it for 30 years, and it screwed up two marriages. And [I]never understood anything. I couldn’t tell anyone. Previous wives, when I met them, you know, “I don’t want to know about your sexual past. I don't want you to know about mine”. Okay. So I’d shut up about those things.’

Terrance took his case to Veterans’ Affairs, and in the 2010s he received a payout from the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce of $45,000 for the abuse he suffered.

‘I actually got $45,050 after the lawyers took $4,000. And then I paid about $800, and I've got to laugh about this, it was called “GST”. And I thought, “Now, my God, what am I being charged Goods and Services for? The rape? The bastardisation? Or the psychological abuse?”’

He said, more important than the money was the validation of his experiences. He was also offered an apology but, while he was granted Vietnam Veterans’ counselling initially, the department is disputing his entitlement to ongoing counselling services. He now sees a counsellor through Medicare support.

While he has often had ‘terrible thoughts about retribution’, Terrance said a better outcome would be the ADF releasing reports they have previously conducted into abuses perpetrated on their watch. He also believes there should be better screening and counselling for those wanting to join the armed services in the first place, to assess their motivations.

He very much enjoyed the actual training and work he did during his time in the navy, and has real regrets for the career that never eventuated.

‘If the bastards who can write this about me from [the base]: “A good cheerful worker who should enjoy a successful career in the future … A good result from a boy who has obviously tried hard to master new subjects. He has the ability to do well” … Why didn't they pick up, a proper psychiatrist, a psychologist, when they saw me a year or so later? All of this, the abuse, was supposed to have stopped. The navy chaplain told me at [training], “Oh, that will all stop when you join the fleet. This is all making you a man”.’

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