Ballarat man seeks compensation for RAAF abuse

A BALLARAT man is angry the Department of Veteran Affairs is refusing to financially compensate him for 20 months of bastardisation he endured while an apprentice at the Laverton RAAF School of Radio 40 years ago.

While the DVA acknowledges the abuse by older apprentices against John Skewes, it is refusing to provide financial compensation for the ordeal.

Despite the DVA admitting he was “physically assaulted and bastardised” at the Laverton Royal Australian Air Force School of Radio over a 20-month period, Mr Skewes’ compensation bid was knocked back in September.

Mr Skewes has since put in a claim for reassessment but is angry he has to prove that the regular “hazing” is linked to his current mental health issues.

Between January 1966 and October 1968, Mr Skewes, an RAAF radio apprentice, was bastardised. He was forced to hold heavy school bags from his outstretched arms and punched repeatedly in the stomach if he dropped them.

He was made to jump blindly off an Ocean Grove cliff and was forced to hit his own friends or be badly beaten himself.

His bed was regularly upended, sending him flying to the floor, with both the mattress and the frame landing on top of him.

“My life has been shaped forever by the harm done to me at the hands of my colleagues,” Mr Skewes said.

“Now, with the benefit of historical insight, what is clear from my experiences is that the physical violence and bastardisation I suffered in those early years in the Air Force had altered my personality from being consistently good, well-mannered and with a strong sense of duty and responsibility, to one that is anxious and depressive and having problems of maladjustment clearly linked to the abuse.”

Mr Skewes was born the middle of three boys and attended a local primary school, where he says he was sexually abused by a teacher when he was nine, which he only revealed in May at the state government inquiry into institutionalised sexual abuse.

However, despite reporting the abuse this year, he said he was told by both police and the Education Department no further action could be taken because the alleged perpetrator had since died. 

Mr Skewes went on to join the RAAF in 1966, aged 16, after completing year 10 at a local technical school.

“It was a hell hole,” he said.

The second and third-year apprentices regularly abused the new intake, including banging their heads against walls and smashing one apprentice’s fingers with a hammer.

They were dragged out every Monday night to do “rain dances” to stop the next day’s ceremonial parade while others were made to stand at attention and answer idiotic questions. If the answers weren’t suitable, they were beaten.

They also had to crawl down a hallway with a second-year apprentice standing on their back. The apprentice would drop suddenly – and, for the victim, painfully – to his knees.

“We lived in constant fear and trepidation of being met by senior apprentices around our billets and on bus trips, waiting for the next bit of intimidation to be enacted.”

Mr Skewes’ testimony was supported by letters from four other ex-apprentices, including Keith Rogers, who said: “That single time, 20 months of my life, would have to go down as the time my soul was stained. It will never leave me but someday I might learn to live with it”.

While senior staff knew about the “roughing up”, and even launched an investigation in February 1966, the older apprentices were simply being told to stop the hazing, which did not happen.

But Mr Skewes said ex-Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent told the “Bullying, Young People and the Law” symposium in Melbourne in July this year that bullying consequences were “remarkably similar to sexual abuse in terms of psychological damage”.

However, the DVA ruled Mr Skewes’ illnesses, which include adjustment disorder, avoidance personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and a generalised anxiety disorder, were instead caused by work problems at Bond University in the late 1990s.

Mr Skewes ended up quitting as the university’s audio visual head in 2000 because he felt he was being bullied, but now believes his work issues were his mental health problems finally coming to the fore.

In fact, the Queensland Medical Assessment Tribunal, hearing his worker’s compensation claim, ruled he only had five per cent impairment caused by his workplace difficulties.

One of his psychologists, Dr John Wainwright, also ruled Mr Skewes’ personality was the “major significant factor” in his psychological difficulties.

“While work has been a significant factor, it is really only incidental,” Dr Wainwright said.

Another psychologist, Dr Doran Samuell, said Mr Skewes had personality difficulties that “clearly evolved from his early rigid upbringing”.

Mr Skewes said he only connected his RAAF abuse with his psychological issues after a parliamentary apology was issued by then Defence Minister Stephen Smith to Australian Defence Force abuse victims earlier this year.

He said he entered the RAAF as a well-adjusted young man who had been school captain, an active church member, an excellent student and with a strong sense of duty and responsibility but now feels disempowered and isolated, suffering nightmares and panic attacks.

Mr Skewes said, as part of the DVA review, that his medical practitioner, or an independent psychologist, should have given an opinion on the cause of his mental illness, but this was not done.

However, he has now been advised that a medico-legal psychiatry appointment will be made for him as part of the reassessment.

“I did not agree with the decision. I am not satisfied with the reasons given for the decision and I am not satisfied that proper processes were undertaken in dealing with my claim.

“It defies all that has been said and done to overcome the enormous barriers veterans and the public have had to put up with in the past and I won’t stand for it.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs said it could not discuss Mr Skewes’ case, for privacy reasons, but said claims were based on whether or not, on the balance of probabilities, a link exists between a diagnosed medical condition and the claimant’s ADF service.

In a statement to The Courier, the DVA said: “If a claimant chooses to appeal the decision, a reconsideration is undertaken by a delegate who was not involved in making the original decision. 

“This helps to ensure that the claimant receives a fair and impartial re-assessment of the decision under review.”

Veterans Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson said he had asked his department to investigate Mr Skewes’ complaint about incorrect procedures.

fiona.henderson@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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