Navy personnel have opened up about seeing asylum seekers die at sea.

Sailors have spoken out about the trauma of serving on border protection operations under the Rudd and Gillard governments. (Screenshot via ABC)




Royal Australian Navy (RAN) personnel who have served on border protection operations have been exposed to significant trauma and are not being properly cared for, according to former and serving sailors and officers.

Men and women who served on Operation Resolute – the Navy’s contribution to Operation Sovereign Borders – have spoken publicly for the first time about what they have witnessed while boarding and intercepting asylum seeker vessels off Australia’s northern coast.

In a series of interviews with the ABC, they described the horrendous task of retrieving the bodies of dead asylum seekers and of coping with sick and distressed children in squalid conditions.

They also alleged decisions made in Canberra directly led to the deaths of asylum seekers.

All of the personnel the ABC spoke to served on Operation Resolute during the Rudd/Gillard Labor governments.

Sailors told to haul bodies onto boats

Troy Norris was recently discharged from the Navy suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He spent 13 years intercepting and boarding asylum seeker vessels, rising to the rank of chief bosun’s mate.

“There’d been times where we had to do body recoveries, which was quite difficult and traumatising,” Mr Norris said.

“It was extremely difficult, especially if the people had been in the water for quite a period of time … they become quite bloated and there’s only one way to pull them in and that’s to grab them and try and chuck them in the boat.


“Sometimes you’d go to pull these people in the boat and all you’d end up with is a handful of flesh. It’d just strip to the bone.”

Former sailor Troy Norris suffers PTSD following his experiences . (Image: ABC News)

Mr Norris was also shot in a training accident, suffered an electric shock on board a Navy ship, and was blown off an asylum seeker boat while attempting to destroy it.

All these things contributed to his debilitating PTSD, which he says was not treated seriously by his commanding officer.

“As he was reading the termination letter and I was having my anxiety attack and crying uncontrollably and whatever else, he didn’t even raise his eyes, didn’t take a breath, just continued reading,” Mr Norris said.

“[He] showed no compassion at all for my situation or the condition that I was in at the time. And that’s the kind a treatment I received. Getting rushed through because we were a liability.”

All the Navy personnel the ABC spoke to said they believe the secrecy surrounding border security operations exacerbated the trauma they suffered.

Sailors are ‘the Vietnam veterans of our time’

‘Fiona’ is a serving Navy officer, so the ABC must obscure her identity. She worked at the Northern Command in Darwin, which directed the Navy ships intercepting asylum seeker boats.


“I would say that the secrecy surrounding the operation, and the fact that the public has very little information about what these people are actually doing – other than what they see as them failing to rescue people at sea, failing to take into account human rights – for the sailors to do these operations and then face that from the public, essentially they’re the Vietnam veterans of our time,” she said.

Asylum seekers are seen in the water from a Royal Australian Navy ship after their boat sank. (Image: ABC News)

Fiona said she was also aware of the level of indirect political pressure applied to border protection operations.

She said the captains of naval ships were told not to board asylum seeker vessels until they were in Australian waters, and the crews and passengers were then subject to Australian migration law.

She claims that on at least one occasion, an asylum seeker vessel sank as a result.

“In the incident that I’ve described where the boat overturned and people died, that pressure came from Canberra,” she said.

Trail of bodies ‘stretched for 70 miles’

Another serving Navy officer, ‘Michael’, also said he witnessed occasions in which unseaworthy asylum seeker vessels were not boarded because of decisions made in Canberra.

He said this pressure took the form of “suggestions” relayed to the captains of boats, rather than direct orders.


“Our vessel was delayed 15 hours for a boarding on one occasion and we got reports in from surveillance aircraft that that vessel had sunk 13 hours ago,” he said.

An unseaworthy vessel sinks with asylum seekers on board. (Image: ABC News)

“All we found was probably a line about 70 miles long of bodies. We fished them out for as long as we could, ’til we were full. And that wasn’t uncommon.”

“[At the] end of the day, if this does come out it’ll be a witch hunt. The people who’ll get caught are the people who made the decisions, and the people we’re talking about now are the captains of boats. And the captains of boats, really, are they to blame?”

Bodies mixed in with survivors as sailors boarded asylum boat

‘Greg’, a former Navy officer who was recently medically discharged, has asked that he not be identified because he still lives in a town with a significant number of Defence personnel.

He also retrieved bodies during his time boarding asylum seeker vessels.

“Basically you are greeted with a sensory overload. You jump on and you can smell three days worth of human faeces, you can smell vomit, you can smell diesel fuel, you can smell rotting wood, you can smell people, there are children screaming. Ah, there are people, you know, crying. There are people, um … desperation, I would say,” Greg said.

“There are people suffering from exposure. Occasionally if you’ll board and there will be a vessel with deceased people on. They’ll be crammed in with them, because they can’t move them. They’re just there. So it obviously makes the head count difficult when you can’t ascertain who’s alive and who’s not.”


Sailors had to retrieve the bodies of asylum seekers who had drowned. (Image: ABC News)

Greg also feels he was badly let down by the Navy. He says the extent of his PTSD only became clear when he tried to commit suicide last year.

“Recently it was mental health awareness week. [Commanding officers] of bases and senior officers all got up and said, ‘Oh, you know, don’t forget to ask people are you OK?’ as the slogan goes,” he said.

“Well, the problem with the Navy is when people say ‘no’, they don’t know what to do. And that’s not good enough,” he said.

“I didn’t realise I had a problem until things got way out of hand, and it’s only a matter of time before those people who are not getting the support – God forbid, you know, someone went to the extreme of committing suicide because they felt there was nowhere to go.”

Policy can’t be justified, says sailor who cradled sick child

Robert Finn spent years on border protection operations before leaving to join the Army, and was then diagnosed with PTSD and medically discharged.

Sailor Robert Finn questioned the morality of the operations after cradling a desperately ill child in his arms. (Image: ABC News)


He said he began to question the morality of the border protection operations after cradling a desperately ill child in his arms.

“The only way I could justify what we were doing was that we were saving lives out there, we were stopping people from drowning,” he said.

“It was the only way I could justify it. I can’t justify the policy at all.”

Defence says reported rates of symptoms are low

In response to questions from the ABC, Defence said it could not provide the number of Navy personnel who had served on Operation Resolute who had gone on to be diagnosed with mental health conditions.

“The data arising from mental health screening shows that the majority of personnel assigned to Operation Resolute are dealing well with the pressures associated with operational deployment,” a statement said.

“Reported rates of mental health-related symptoms are low.

“Throughout their careers, Royal Australian Navy members receive a wide range of training in mental health from annual training, deployment-specific training and targeted programs regarding suicide awareness and prevention, alcohol management and early recognition and treatment of emerging mental health issues.

“RAN members also have access to a full range of mental health care, including medical, psychological and psychiatric treatment and rehabilitation programs through the Defence health system.


“Despite a range of avenues for assistance, mental health stigma is recognised as a significant barrier to seeking help for ADF members, which reflects the attitudes of the general community.

“The ADF is working to address this issue through programs, such as the annual ADF Mental Health Day.”

(Image: ABC News)

Regarding the allegations of indirect political pressure being applied to the commanders of Navy vessels, Defence said: “Operational matters are always complex.

“Decisions are taken based on all available information with the balance of weight allocated to the on-the-scene assessment by commanding officers of safety and prevailing weather conditions.

“The preservation of life at sea is the highest priority for the commanders of all vessels … assigned to Border Protection Command from the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.

“The Australian Government’s implementation of Operation Sovereign Borders in no way changed our commitment to observing Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and Search and Rescue (SAR) obligations and protocols.”

This post originally appeared on the ABC and has been republished here with full permission.