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The Story of Jim

How the Veterans Shed can help repair a lifetime of trauma

Jim is a 60 year old man who lives by himself 150km north west of Adelaide.

In 1971, Jim (not his real name) was a 15 year old Junior Recruit (JR) at HMAS Leeuwin where he was allegedly raped by five Senior ADF personnel. He had joined the RAN with the view of serving his country for at least 12 years and in that time he had planned to learn a trade and be a proud servant for his country.

The day he was raped was the day his life changed forever.

Like many other young men of his age at this infamous Naval Base, HMAS Leeuwin, Jim suffered continual abuse to the point where he tried to escape. When successful he was able to purchase alcohol locally and bring it back to his barracks to share with other young men who were suffering similar humiliations.

Obviously, the alcohol was used as a way of overcoming the constant fear and memories of continual abuse he and his fellow junior recruits were experiencing.

Following his departure from HMAS Leeuwin, Jim and many like him, has moved through life suffering the results of his torturous time, not being able to enjoy many aspects of everyday living, such as normal relationships, continual employment and a fear of crowds. He developed a reliance on heavy medication and alcohol to help overcome the regular flashbacks and nightmares he experiences.

Currently, Jim lives alone with few friends and the company of his two pet dogs who are in the main, his best mates. He lives on Centrelink  benefits and wanders down to the local beach to catch a few fish from time to time but that is about the extent of his day.

I first met Jim about six years ago when I was doing voluntary pension work for an ex Service Organisation based in Adelaide. He contacted that group with the story of his horrific treatment and how it had affected him for 45 years of his life.

I have listened and spent many hours talking to him since. 

For several years now, every few months, I bring both he and his dogs to Adelaide in my vehicle to attend hospital. These visits are to have medication checked and counselling provided, then a fortnight later I return him to his home in the country. As I mentioned earlier, he has a fear of crowds and people he does not know. This is why he cannot travel by public transport.

Jim does not receive DVA benefits.

Currently victims of ADF abuse, such as Jim, who did not report their abuses at the time for fear of retribution, are ineligible to submit a claim against the Department; however, I must add here this situation is currently being examined for a solution.

The William Kibby VC Veterans’ Shed

The William Kibby VC Veterans’ Shed (WKVCVS), which was set up by a few fellow Vietnam Veterans, carries out all the usual functions of a Men’s Shed (we now have full inclusion of women who served) with the added value of being qualified to carry out advocacy/pension work. We are now specialising in welfare support for former and current members of the ADF.

The William Kibby VC Veterans’ Shed has been very much involved in the ADF abuse program having been closely involved with the DART (Defence Abuse Response Task Force) from it’s inception.The DART was set up by government to recognise and offer some form of financial and psychological support to victims of ADF abuse who had the courage to come forward and tell of their experiences.

WKVCVS has had contact with between 300 and 400 victims of ADF abuse over the past few years.

We are very aware of the fact that many of those victims have led lives of shame and solitude. Victims of abuse are living with a perception that they have not, nor will they, live completely fruitful lives due to the constant memories of their abuse. The sad question to which we will never have a true answer: how many of the abused have committed suicide?

Now that the DART has come almost to the end of its “terms of reference” and will no longer function, the WKVCVS has turned its attention more to the rehabilitation side to support the victims of ADF abuse.

We are now in a period of negotiation with DVA about the best way of contributing with of our own forms of rehabilitation.

Over the past couple of years the WKVCVS has developed close ties with several major Australian companies who have shown a solid interest in the work of the Shed. These companies support our approach to “clients” and also know we are looking to provide further and more long-term support where we can. 

We are grateful for their input to our objectives.

Our organisation is currently putting plans in place to expand our operations into other states.

Given the large number of current ADF and former ADF personnel we know we will be approached to provide various forms of support in the future.

We believe that our task will increase markedly when the DART finally closes as many of those who have sought support from DART will need to seek further advice and direction from an experienced organisation such as ours.

All that I have discussed to this point is how we are viewing our future. But it needs to be understood; the WKVCVS has for the past few years, been providing support in several areas such as psychological, domestic support as well as providing various forms of advocacy through our network of specialists. So it can be said that rehabilitation is not an entirely new approach for us.

Now  to a moment of pride for WKVCVS and our COMBADAS strategy.

Over the past few years I have developed a special relationship with Jim. 

I have come to understand how he copes with his alcohol dependence and also the vast amount of medication he takes each day to help relieve the constant nightmares and flashbacks he regularly experiences.

I have been asking Jim if there are any directions he would like to take such as woodworking, metal working, horticulture etc because I would like to try and give him a bit more of a purpose in life.

Over the past few months the Shed has received a number of old push bikes which people have “donated” to us. Last week and the day before a meeting I was having with Jim’s psych team at the Repatriation Hospital, I mentioned to Jim about all the bikes we had been accumulating and he  asked who was going to restore them so I said that we had no one in mind at present. He said to me that he would like to try an activity like that because as a younger man he enjoyed doing that sort of work.

This to us was a significant breakthrough!

The next day at the meeting I brought this up with the psych staff and they were as happy as I was when they heard Jim talk about this new project in which he was very much looking forward to being involved.

He then went on to talk about a workbench I had said the men from the Shed would build for him and that we would also provide all the tools he would need.

I could hear his enthusiasm.

This in essence, will be Jim’s own project and we will allow him to work within his own boundaries. It is quite possibly the first time in his life where he will be able to determine his own direction.

We will obviously monitor his progress by keeping in touch with him and visiting every so often along with providing any parts and other forms of support he may need.

We will also keep in touch with his medicos, keeping them informed of his progress.

I have spoken to Jim on several occasions since and his positive attitude about the project and his decision to become involved has not subsided.

His decision to go ahead with this project brings up a number of “what ifs”.

What if he begins to do this work and he maintains his initial enthusiasm and maybe spends more time in his shed and less time using alcohol?

What if he gets enough satisfaction from his efforts that his levels of such problems as anxiety and depression recede?

What if he begins to think that maybe someone else who also suffers similar problems could become partly involved and this develops into a team experience?

What if he does not need to travel to Adelaide on a 300 km round trip for the regular fortnightly stay in hospital, which seems to increase his levels of anxiety, rather are we able to have him visit the local country hospital in his town instead where he can have his doctor constantly on hand?

Imagine also, his parents who are both over 80 and have suffered Jim’s problems for nearly 50 years and  they are able to see some very positive changes in their son, which in turn has a positive effect on them. 

Still a way to go here yet, but because Jim is a case where we believe we will have a positive outcome, the reader needs to understand our enthusiasm for COMBADAS* and this sort of rehabilitation.

We see ourselves being able to repeat his process in other locations across Australia in the future.

The question we ask at the Shed is why not?

Thank you for reading this long message and I hope that you now have a bit more of an idea of our work and direction.

Barry Heffernan

Shed Coordinator

William Kibby VC Veterans’ Shed

*COMBADAS (Community Based Defence Abuse Support) is a Policy of the William Kibby VC Veterans Shed which has been the document we use to support our Rehabilitation program.