‘I’m a very proud soldier, but a bit shocked at some of the things that happened around my time.’
Wilson served in the Australian Defence Force for much of his life. He fought in Vietnam, leading a platoon of soldiers into battle. ‘Today I am still in contact with those blokes’, Wilson told the Commissioner. ‘If I needed a bed tonight I’d only have to ring one of them and I’d have a bed.’ But Wilson is troubled by a culture of silence within the army which makes abuse of all kinds possible.
He clearly recalls his own humiliation as a 16-year-old recruit at an army training institution in the early 1960s. ‘It was all around the bathroom, it was all about being in the nude, and doing physical exercises, obstacle courses, where all of your body was exposed to anyone who was watching.’
The first time Wilson walked into the bathroom he was naked and had to keep his towel at his side. He was confronted by three men, also naked, who were seated in a bathtub with their legs hanging over. Wilson had to ask permission to enter the showers.
‘And then we usually went through a series of exercises. Everything from bum slides to birdy baths [in the hand basins] to obstacle courses over the toilet cubicles – so you could see everything. There was no privacy …
‘It was all regarded as team building, this culture building. This is the culture. You don’t rat on anyone and you don’t go and discuss it. The thing I remember is being made to stand at attention while someone inspected you, and that’s both front and back. … I was always frightened of someone sticking something up my tail …
‘I came out of a Catholic school. I was very straight in what my religion was about. I was very straight in what I was about, and I hit this bloody brick wall.’ Wilson has seen that insular and secretive culture at work throughout his career. ‘Again it’s this, “We’re all in line. We’re all happy with it. No one dissent”.’
Wilson believes that the army has covered up incidents of abuse, sexual harassment and stress-induced suicides. He knows of instances where victims of abuse have been given confidentiality documents to sign and transferred elsewhere. Serial abusers have been left untouched or moved around within the organisation.
Wilson stills feel shame about his experiences as a teenager. He still feels nervous about approaching the Royal Commission with the information. He is nevertheless keen to ‘add his piece to the jigsaw’.
Wilson points out that many organisations deal with tough situations. The ambulance service and state police forces all need ‘team building’ strategies and need to be able to identify and weed out weak recruits. Yet they do so without abusive rituals and a culture of silence. Wilson believes the army’s argument that it is an exceptional case is ‘crap’.
He was partly inspired to come forward by a video recorded in 2013 by Lieutenant General David Morrison which received wide publicity. Morrison tackled head on the issue of sexual harassment within the army, and Wilson quotes from the General’s speech, ‘The behaviour you’re prepared to walk past is the behaviour you’re prepared to accept.’
Wilson is no longer prepared to ‘walk past’.