Posted on 15 Jun. 2012
Yesterday, one of the first calls I received was from a young soldier 'Tim'*, who is currently serving in the defence force.
He told me he had been abused, bullied and bastardised for no reason and wanted to know what his legal rights were. 'Tim' is 30.
Last month, I spoke to 'Jane'*, who alleges that she was raped and subjected to serious forms of abuse in the Navy back in 1987. She told me she was under 20 years of age at the time.
The difference between these two people is that I can only help one of them gain access to compensation for the injuries and the pain and suffering that has come as a result of the alleged abuse.
Under the existing military compensation schemes in Australia, members of the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) who served prior to 1989 are not eligible for compensation for pain and suffering. It means that they are left at the mercy of the Government and it's only if the Government acts to change this inadequate system can they both receive some justice.
This disparity of justice is something I passionately believe must be changed. I have been a personal injury lawyer for nearly 25 years, specialising in military compensation cases for the past five years, and I can tell you that these calls do not get any easier.
I can also tell you that there is no sign of these calls slowing down either. 'Tim' and 'Jane' are just two of the hundreds of current and former defence personnel that I've spoken with over the years. Calls spiked when the ADF Skype scandal hit the media in April last year and the subsequent Four Corners report was aired on abuse within the ADF. While these cases and stories have shocked the nation, they have unfortunately come as no surprise to me.
For years, successive governments have announced reports, reviews, inquiries and commissions into this area. Ministers have stood tall with their Defence Chiefs claiming that they're committed to stamping out this intolerable behaviour. They've said that the men and women who selflessly serve this country will never be subjected to abuse, but they are not willing to go back and assist those who were abused, bullied or bastardised before 1989.
I do commend the Government on its latest efforts in investigating this area. But it's not enough. The latest of those reviews, conducted by defence law firm DLA Piper, has uncovered serious allegations. Allegations spanning 60 years with evidence of sexual and other abuse assaults, bastardisation and brutal attacks. Allegations raised in last night's 7.30 program even told us that some of these acts were committed against boys from 13 to 16 years of age.
Out of the review of over 1,000 submissions, 775 cases were deemed to be 'plausible', including historical abuse cases dating back to the 1950s. Given these findings, only the establishment of an ex-gratia scheme will help heal the pain and give peace of mind to the hundreds of defence personnel who have carried on and suffered for so long.
Until the Government makes it clear that compensation will be available to the hundreds of victims currently not covered by existing schemes, then the year spent preparing numerous reviews has been a waste of time and valuable resources. Funds spent on the latest multi-million dollar review could have compensated hundreds of victims.
Putting compensation aside, I think what these men and women really want is some recognition.
Many people that I have spoken to, who also made submissions to the review, have said that a simple 'sorry' could start the healing process to get their lives on track. It was difficult for them when their cases were silenced while serving and it's far worse when the Government still refuses to recognise what happened.
A public apology delivered by the Prime Minister or Defence Minister, or a personal apology delivered by a high level office holder can be the first step in closing this ugly chapter of our defence history.
Before finishing, may I just say that the experience of those that call up my office is obviously not the experience of all who serve within our fine defence forces. My family has a proud history of association with our defence forces and I recognise the sacrifice and courageous efforts and work of members of our defence force every day.
It just disappoints me that we've let these people serve our country, yet we will not rectify an historical injustice that exists.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the defence personnel involved.