Thelma’s father was in the Australian Army, and she grew up moving from one army base to the next.
In the mid-1960s, when Thelma was seven years old, she and her family were living on an army base in Victoria. She enjoyed visiting the army gymnasium where she ‘liked playing on the ropes’.
One day she was climbing one of the ropes when someone came from behind and molested her. The incident was very brief and they left her ‘dangling’ in mid-air while they left the hall. To this day Thelma does not know who her abuser was.
A few years later, Thelma’s family were moved to a different army base in the state where they lived next door to Mr Reeves. Reeves got to know the family well and after some time asked Thelma if she would like to be shown around the base camp. Thelma followed Reeves to the rifle range where there was a bunker. He led her into the bunker, asked her to lay on his lap and molested her. This happened on several occasions over the next few months until one day her mother told her not to go next door any more.
In addition to experiencing abuse on army premises, Thelma told the Commissioner that she was sexually assaulted by five other men as a child, including neighbours and strangers.
‘Having been abused by so many different people I thought all men did that. So that’s why I never reported it.’
When she was 11, Thelma was molested by a stranger on the street. She told her father about the incident, but ‘a couple of days later he had a heart attack and died. So I’ve kind of connected his heart attack with telling him I was abused’.
As a result of the abuse, Thelma has battled with mental illness for most of her life. ‘I’ve got post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s really severe, and I have depression. I’ve had that since eight years of age.’
‘It’s affected three generations of my family … My children, I was physically and emotionally abusive with them. I’d like to state never sexually. But I had really bad anger issues and, like I said, I was physically and emotionally abusive towards the kids.
‘My daughter has got through unscathed by it. I don’t know how, but she has. But my son, he’s really bad emotionally and he said he’s bipolar now. He’s got a lot of mental health issues. And my grandchildren, I don’t see them all that often. It depends on the mood I’m in or how I’m feeling at the time.’
Thelma has been seeing a psychologist for over 10 years now and find this very helpful. She also regularly sees her psychiatrist to ensure her medication is up to date, and is happy that the treatment she is currently receiving is sufficient. Even so, ‘If I need to see a doctor I can’t see a male doctor’.
After years of believing she was to blame for the abuse, Thelma finally decided to make a report to the police. ‘Before then I didn’t think I deserved anything … I blamed myself basically. And then I just said “I’ve gotta report it. I’ve just gotta do something. I’m worthy of trying to do something for myself”.’
Thelma visited her local police station but described it as ‘a horrible experience’. She was not taken to a private area but had to make her report in the foyer where ‘everybody heard’, and the report was taken down in an exercise book.
Eventually she was sent to a different police station where she had a better experience. Still, she was told ‘they can’t do nothing ‘cause it happened years ago in the 60s and all my abusers were probably dead. So I went and I put it back inside that I wasn’t worthy enough to do anything about it’.
After learning about the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce, Thelma approached the armed forces to detail the abuse she experienced as a child, but was frustrated to be told that at that stage the terms of reference did not cover it.
‘I just wanted for them to know that it wasn’t just the people that are in the army now, that there was kids my age … There must be hundreds of people that were sexually abused by the army. I can’t be the only one.’
‘I feel isolated and that I’m not worth anything. And I’m just damned angry actually at the defence force.’
‘I just want them to say “We’re sorry” and that something is gonna be done about it, and really done about it ... And just make sure it doesn’t bloody happen ever again.’