It was worse than anything in the movies

With aspirations for lifelong careers in the Royal Australian Navy, hundreds of children boarded a train bound for Perth, filled with excitement for the adventure ahead.

Aged 15, their 12 months training at HMAS Leeuwin base in Fremantle were to be their first steps into a Defence Force role and, for many, the first trip away from home.

Proud parents hugged their children, some children cried and among them Graeme Pilley took his seat, excited and proud to be joining the 100 boys in the March 1968 intake.

But, within just weeks of unpacking his bags in WA, any hopes of a high-flying navy career were dashed by, he claims, the sailors tasked with taking care of him.

REPORT REVEALS LEEUWIN ABUSE HORROR

In evidence he has given to the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce, Mr Pilley alleges a sailor inappropriately touched him at the base, with a suggestion of a promotion if he stayed silent.

Terrified, he claims he tried to run away, only to be found the next morning, asleep on the football oval, by the sailor he alleges abused him and another man.

What would follow, he says, would lead to him living in a "world of fear" into his 60s and decades of mental illness.

Mr Pilley said the men kicked him repeatedly until he fell into the grass, unconscious, and woke to discover he was not only unable to stand but had also been raped.

"Face again in the grass, hot flushing, I cannot feel the cold but I can feel my blood running. I lay sobbing, demolished," he wrote in evidence to the task force.

Mr Pilley said the abuse was the most traumatic of his time at Leeuwin, when he says he witnessed abuse from both sailors and fellow recruits including the "scrubbing" of young boys with toilet cleaner and steel wool and after-dark beatings at the hands of senior recruits.

"It was worse than anything you've ever seen in the movies about boot camps and that, everyone yelled at us and ordered us around and beat us up. We suffered from the moment we turned up," he said.

Mr Pilley revealed details of the alleged abuse to a psychologist more than 30 years after he left the navy and after the breakdown of his marriage, which he blamed on the trauma he suffered at HMAS Leeuwin.

But while some kept their alleged abuse hidden, others including John White have attempted to expose their claims of bastardisation at the training base for decades.

Athletic and tall for his age, Mr White said he knew he had the strength to fight back.

"I knew the minute I arrived there, one had to look after himself or have the system run him. I burst a blood vessel in my hand fighting back," he said.

Mr White said hitting those who tried to abuse him had protected him from the most physical abuse but still vivid images of the brutal initiation rituals he witnessed in 1969 appeared in his nightmares.

Using broom handles and their fists, older recruits, he said, would introduce the youngest "grubs" to the base with what they would call "character-building" abuse.

The effect of the abuse on the youngest recruits was detailed in heartbreaking letters Mr White wrote to his parents, which were used in the DART's investigation.

"Dear Mum and Dad, now for the bad news. To put it plainly, I WANT TO COME HOME. Lately about five kids a week have been getting discharges which is the worst Leeuwin has ever been. Kids have been trying to kill there selves and all (sic)," he wrote in one letter.

Mr White was also one of a handful of whistleblowers who complained of abuse at HMAS Leeuwin. His claims were used in a 1971 inquiry led by Victorian judge Trevor Rapke into alleged abuse at the training base.

The inquiry found abuse at the training base was not widespread.

The release of yesterday's task force report, he said, vindicated the complaints he had raised for more than 40 years.

But the abuse he and more than 200 others claim they suffered would never be forgotten.

Both Mr Pilley and Mr White say their experiences at HMAS Leeuwin have led to a lonely adult life, during which they kept their stories secret for more than 30 years.

Both often replay visions of the abuse, including the bashing of children in the dormitories, when they try to sleep.

"The doctors say I've suffered with this for so long that it will never go," Mr Pilley said.

"I lived in terror for the 12 months I was there. I never trusted anyone again and the ramifications of what happened then will stay with me for ever. I had a complete lack of faith in any authority after that day at the oval.

"I worked for myself because I couldn't work for a boss."

Mr Pilley said he was one of the 117 victims who got compensation from the Government as part of the inquiry but claimed the $50,000 he received has barely covered the cost of a lifetime of mental health problems.

Both men welcomed a recommendation of an inquiry in the current royal commission framework but urged that every case be looked into in detail, including which authorities knew of abuse claims decades before they were investigated.

"It would be really nice to have this all end properly by the Department of Veterans' Affairs looking after our care, returning to us what we did when we volunteered as children," Mr Pilley said.

"I don't think this is anywhere near finished until it goes to the royal commission.

"It can't be completed until every dark corner has a light shone on it." 'I lived in terror for the 12 months I was there.'" Abuse victim Graeme Pilley

The West Australian

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