It takes all sorts

TORTURING kittens, taking drugs, shooting horses, underage sex and the Ku Klux Klan: the reputation of the army has taken a hammering after a series of damaging incidents at Townsville's Lavarack Barracks this year left defence chiefs scrambling for an explanation.

The army claims the incidents are unconnected and the storm has cast an unfair reflection on the 4500 troops within the barracks. However, the series of events could suggest a more deep-seated problem.

In March, nine soldiers tested positive for steroids, methylamphetamines and opiates during a police raid on the barracks. One month later, six soldiers were found to have tortured and killed a litter of stray kittens during a drinking session on Easter Saturday. The Townsville soldiers, ages 19 to 26, crushed a kitten under the tyre of a four-wheel drive, dragged another on a rope behind a motorbike and doused the rest with petrol and threw them on the road to watch them burn. All six soldiers were discharged from the defence force, which is still trying to limit the damage to its reputation caused by the men's actions.

In July, a 27-year-old captain from Lavarack was charged with shooting five horses, including a foal, on a Cape York cattle station while on holidays, and just last week a soldier was convicted of having sex with a 12-year-old girl in his room at the barracks.

Finally, when a photo emerged on Remembrance Day of white soldiers dressed as Ku Klux Klan members posing menacingly behind Aboriginal and dark-skinned soldiers, for many it was the last straw.

"On behalf of the Australian army, that photograph that appeared on the front page of a newspaper this morning is just deplorable," army chief Lieutenant General Peter Leahy said hours after the picture was published.

The photo may have been taken in jest and not as part of a racist initiation ceremony as first thought, but the joke backfired spectacularly on the soldiers.

Lavarack Barracks is a sprawling military base at the foot of Mt Stuart on the southwestern fringes of the north Queensland city of Townsville. Home to the regular army's 3rd Brigade, which includes Australia's Ready Deployment Force, it is one of the country's most important military installations. It is home to 4500 mostly young, white men from working-class backgrounds who earn an average pay in their first year of about $31,000.

The base also forms a significant part of Townsville, in which one in every eight jobs is defence-related. Events this year, however, have put a strain on the relationship between the base and locals. In May, when fury peaked in Townsville at the actions of the kitten killers, soldiers stopped wearing their uniforms in public for fear of being spat on and heckled. One soldier reported being called "scum" while grocery shopping.

Monash University senior lecturer in psychology Elisabeth Wilson-Evered says soldiers who commit antisocial acts would most likely have learned that behaviour before joining the army, where it is often exacerbated.

"The army context would allow for it because there's a lot of time spent together; it happens in those workplaces," she says. "Maybe it's done by people who maybe have had less guidance and active parenting."

However, Wilson-Evered says, that behaviour usually creates a counter-balancing force – soldiers who want to do the right thing and reverse the wrongs of colleagues.

While Leahy and other senior defence force officials have been at pains to point out that just a handful of soldiers have been responsible for the criminal behaviour this year at Lavarack, the public perception differs and the reputation of the army undoubtedly has suffered. The army has had to defend life at the base, which at times this year has been painted as having a violent, sinister culture in which antisocial behaviour is tolerated.

"It's painted us in a bad light . . . I just find this small number of incidents a total aberration of what they are doing day to day and in operations overseas," Leahy says. "These are people who are acting illegally, immorally and irresponsibly, and not only the army community but the Australian community abhors this sort of behaviour . . . it's regrettable and it's not tolerated."

Neil James, executive director of the lobby group the Australian Defence Association, was in the army for 31 years, serving as a platoon commander in 1RAR (Royal Australian Regiment) at Lavarack for three years in the 1970s.

"If you're going to have a large number of young people together in what is still a relatively small regional city, then you're going to get problems," he says.

James remembers that when he was based at Townsville, members of his brigade were involved in murders, rapes and armed robberies while on leave. "There have always been incidents at Lavarack Barracks, it's just that they are getting more publicity now," he says. "Unfortunately, people are too willing tosee connections in the military that they do not see if they were school incidents or it happened at university."

If a photo was taken of university students dressed up as Ku Klux Klan members, would it be front-page news? Leahy doesn't think so. "The allegations became quite lurid and some journalists have put their adjective machines in overdrive," he says.

He dismisses talk of a culture at Lavarack that encourages antisocial behaviour. "When they come into the army they are taught very clearly what our values are," he says. "They are taught the Anzac ethos, and they are taught values, courage, initiative and teamwork.

"The culture of the army is one of serving the nation, and it's something that the vast number of soldiers can be proud of and that the nation can be proud of."

Townsville RSL president Rod McLeod, who spent 11 years stationed at Lavarack during his time in the army, says he understands how soldiers could think it was OK to pose for a photograph dressed as Ku Klux Klan members but doesn't believe the problem is restricted to Lavarack.

"Having been in the army for 31 years, there are several things that go on like that," McLeod says. "Soldiers are trained for war and so they are not pussycats, if you know what I mean. They play it rough and do it tough."

While team-building and group identity are a key focus for army units, Leahy says this does not lead to antisocial behaviour or animal torture. He says the "deplorable" acts committed at Lavarack are being performed by soldiers who are operating outside the army code: "People who are just not listening and don't understand and for some reason, whether it's just being stupid or whether they have brought some culture from outside which they inject," he says. "I think what happens is that we recruit from the broader community and naturally represent the broader community."

But for Madonna Palmer, seeing photographs of soldiers dressed up as Ku Klux Klan members is another devastating reminder of the death of her son. Damien Palmer hanged himself at Lavarack Barracks in 1999. His mother later told a Senate committee hearing he had suffered months of harassment in the army because he was Aboriginal.

She claims the army is a "scary place" for Aboriginal soldiers. "I just know Damien, and over and over I have been trying to justify that he was just a normal kid," she says. "He went from living with us and four months in the army he was dead and ... He would be alive today if he didn't go in there.

"As a recruit you're told never to do anything to disgrace your uniform but their behaviour is just appalling."

Comments such as this make Leahy wince. He has tried hard to find ways to recruit indigenous soldiers and help remote communities, calling it "practical reconciliation".

"We are the largest employer of Aboriginal people in Australia, we are proud of our record to be able to work with these communities and help them out and give them a hand," he says. "I am terribly disappointed when things like this happen because it creates some doubt in the minds of Aboriginal and ethnic soldiers that they are not welcome in the army.

"We have to make sure the message gets through and for those who ignore it we make sure there is appropriate disciplinary action."

At stake is the future of the Australian army.
Not Deepcut or Catterick but even in sunny Oz things go wrong and the press go to town.

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