A female sailor who was 18 when she was sexually assaulted by a fellow shipmen says the navy failed to protect her, and her fellow sailors taunted her with threats her career was ruined “because I couldn’t shut my legs”.
The young sailor, who had joined the navy at 17, told the royal commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide on Friday that over the next five and a half years she would be stalked, abused, punished and denied help by her chain of command until she became suicidal.
Identified only as Witness BR1, the former sailor told the commission she had a message for all other women in the defence forces who were not believed when they reported sexual assaults: “Don’t let anyone make you think that it is your fault … speak up.”
The young woman said her brutal treatment had started from the first week she joined the navy and she was targeted for failing to meet fitness training standards.
Her instructor had kept her back to doing extra training, forcing her to go without meals so often, that when her family visited her for the first time they “didn’t recognise me” because she had lost so much weight.
“My clothes didn’t really fit me any more and there wasn’t really much left, I guess, of me. I was very skinny.”
The commission heard not long after BR1’s 18th birthday she had gone out with a group of girlfriends before they were due to be posted on their first “sea ride”, on ship training for a permanent posting.
“We went out and we had a few drinks and I honestly didn’t drink that much,” she said.
“There was a (male) fellow shipmate that was buying drinks for the group of us and I’m not sure how much was in those drinks but I do remember … when I woke up … I was being sexual assaulted.”
The commission heard BR1 was initially too frightened to report the assault by the seaman, who she worked with, for fear they wouldn’t believe her.
“I was told by some people that Defence doesn’t like doing paperwork … it would be him against me … and I’m a woman,” she said.
She was also warned “that my career was ruined because I couldn’t shut my legs”.
BR1 said her health and career had suffered from that point onwards. No action was taken against the shipmate, and at one point her chief petty officer had told her she had no choice but to take a posting on board the same ship as her perpetrator.
When she was ultimately assigned to another ship there was an all male chain of command, and she and the only other female on board had been forced to endure “disgusting” treatment.
She said when they complained, the male command punished them by making them do more work than the men.
They were told if they reported it “nobody is going to care and we’re easily replaced”.
On one occasion she recalled her female shipmate had worn make up, and was told by their petty officer “he didn’t know why we bothered putting make up on because our face is only going to be rammed into a pillow”.
BR1 said it reached the point where “I was just fearing for my life”.
Every time she sought psychological help from the navy her private details would be immediately leaked.
When she finally left the navy after five and a half years she was suicidal and suffering from PTSD.
“If I didn’t have my family I probably wouldn’t be here,” she said.
She said being lured into the navy when she was still in Year 11 at school had taken an unbearable toll on her life.
“I honestly regret it,” she said. “It impacts my life now and I’m sure it is going to impact my life for ever.”
The commission will resume its public hearings in Sydney in February.