A former sailor who endured years of sexual abuse and harassment, plus bullying by her navy bosses, says she felt so “dehumanised” she was too frightened to seek help, even after attempting suicide.
Giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide in Canberra on Tuesday, the woman code named CB1, said civilians would be “absolutely horrified” by the brutal “wild west” culture in the Royal Australian Navy.
The woman said she was 19 when she joined the navy and was one of few female recruits at the training school, HMAS Cerberus in Victoria.
In such a male-dominated culture, she told the inquiry she felt she had no choice but to “suck it up, you deal with it … you never cried, you never show emotion”.
“I was (sexually) assaulted by my petty officer who was in charge of my squad and I also experienced harassment by him and other petty officers that were in charge of us,” she said.
Female recruits were subjected to male bonding rituals at Cerberus, like “the dance of the flaming arseholes”, she added.
“Men would take their pants down and put toilet paper …” she said.
“It was like living in the west, wild west, in a movie where, honestly, if people, civilians had walked in and seen that, they would have been absolutely horrified.”
The inquiry was told when CB1 got her first posting at Sydney’s HMAS Kuttabul, the abuse and sexual harassment continued, but again she didn’t feel she could report it to her warrant officer as he was bullying her as well.
“I was drinking a lot, I was partying, I became very promiscuous and put myself in very dangerous situations … I’m surprised that nothing worse had happened to me.”
CB1 said when she made her first suicide attempt at Kuttabul, she felt there was no-one to turn to for help, so she covered it up.
“I was just fearful of the officers and the people above you. Because of the way they treated you, like a number, and the way that you were so dehumanised.”
When CB1 fell pregnant she left the navy after four years, but it would take another 12 years before she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD.
CB1 told the commission her struggle to get compensation from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs further traumatised her, leaving her unable to pay her rent and “barely feed myself”.
She said one of the greatest hurdles for female veterans was that the DVA still failed to recognise not all injured veterans had seen combat, but were victims of abuse from fellow defence members.
“They need to … give more credence to women … and recognise women more who have suffered abuse,” she said.
In other evidence on Tuesday, 58-year-old Teresa Pyne gave an account of her life growing up as an “army brat” and the legacy of living with her father, a Vietnam veteran.
Ms Pyne told the inquiry when her father returned from the notorious battle of Long Tan in 1966 she and her sister were toddlers. The “loving father and husband” who had gone to war returned with undiagnosed PTSD, haunted by the memories of going into the battlefield to retrieve bodies.
With no support from the army or the government, she said the family were left to fend for themselves as her father started drinking heavily, his nightmares leaving him sleep deprived and bad tempered.
Her parents divorced in 1980, and her mother was unentitled to any financial support from the DVA or Department of Defence.
No counselling was available for her mother, who struggled with multiple mental health problems caused or exacerbated by her father’s military service.
Ms Pyne, who works in human resources as a “life coach”, told the commission while supports for defence families had improved in recent decades, it still fell short.
“The stigma of mental health in the military needs to be addressed as it is a major factor in the volume of suicides among ADF members and ex members,’ she said.
The hearing continues in Canberra on Wednesday.
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