Remembering the war a nation forgot

Steve Costelow was born in Melbourne on September 25, 1946.

That date is significant because 21 years later it would be drawn from a ballot determining which young Australian men would be called up for two years’ compulsory military service during the Vietnam War. “I found out living at home with mum and dad and I can remember mum sitting on the end of my bed crying.

“[The Vietnam war] wasn’t really on my radar because I was working, I’d just started in the rag trade and I didn’t take a lot of notice of what was going on.”

The magnitude of what was about to happen hadn’t yet dawned on Steve.

“It probably upset me to see mum crying, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. It probably took me a while for it to sink in.”

Steve was assigned to ordnance – “that was just luck of the draw, you couldn’t ask for where you wanted to go” – which, after 12 months’ training in Australia, saw him deployed to the Second Advanced Ordnance Depot (2AOD) in Vung Tau, near Saigon.

 

 

2AOD, where Steve would serve for a year before returning home, was a fast-moving logistical hub of Australia’s war effort.

“Once a month a ship would come in that we would unload. We had huge warehouses and it was our daily job to issue something as small as a screw or as big as a tank. Arms, ammunition, whatever.

“It was always full on, and when the ship was in and unloading we’d work all night.”

Steve was good at his job and was quickly recommended for promotion from Private to Lance Corporal.

While Vung Tau was a relatively peaceful part of the county, the grim realities of the war were ever-present. 

“The hospital was next door so we knew when dead people were coming in, the helicopters would come in and they’d sound sirens and stuff like that.

“The choppers flew in from the front and dropped them off at the hospital. Some were injured, some were dead.”

In some respects, though, the hardest thing for Steve and many Australian soldiers who served in Vietnam was returning home.

Public sentiment towards the controversial conflict had soured, and the returning servicemen bore the brunt of it.

“When I finally came home, you wouldn’t want to be wearing your uniform. People were spitting on you. They didn’t agree with the Vietnam war, but it’s not our fault – we got told to go.

“We didn’t have a choice – we were over there for our country, doing what we could and for the public to treat us that way when we came back, I reckon blokes were affected by that as well. The fact they weren’t liked or welcomed home after what they’d done wasn’t good.”

And the full extent of what those young men gone through wasn’t yet apparent.

Several of Steve’s friends who served in Vietnam suffered post traumatic stress disorder, some of whom ultimately took their own lives. Others were diagnosed with cancer attributed to their exposure to the defoliant chemical Agent Orange.

Vietnam soldiers weren’t officially welcomed backed to Australia until 1987. Steve traveled to Canberra for the ceremony, and “that probably closed a lot of issues that most of us had”.

More than 40 years after that fateful letter arrived in the mail, Steve can see his service with the kind of clarity only time affords. He’s made peace with any bitterness about how Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned, and in its place now there is a strong sense of pride.

“I’m proud that I’ve represented the country. I like wearing my medals when I get the opportunity to wear them, and people’s attitudes these days have changed. They now say, ‘well done’.”

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