On Remembrance Day Vietnam veteran Steve Costelow looked across a sea of poppy adorned audience members to meet the gaze of his daughters.
As Steve’s story of conscription and service was shared with his fellow Weary Dunlop Retirement Village residents his daughters Kirsty and Natalie also heard it for the first time.
“I can’t recollect ever talking about my service in Vietnam with them,” Steve said.
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“I could see them tearing up because they would have learnt something.”
While Steve’s family had proudly watched him march in several Anzac Day parades, it was with the encouragement of fellow Weary Dunlop resident and Remembrance Day service organiser Jim Garrie that Steve’s experiences in Vietnam 55 years ago were finally shared.
Steve Costelow with his daughters Kirsty (left) and Natalie.
“I think a lot of returned servicemen need to get it out there, to talk about it because we didn’t talk about it to our families because you wouldn’t think they would understand,” Steve said.
“Jim loves doing research and he did a fantastic job of sharing my story.”
Over the course of months Steve and Jim prepared a detailed account of how Steve’s life changed in 1966 when his birthdate was drawn from a ballot determining which young Australian men would be called up for two years’ compulsory military service during the Vietnam War.
Steve completed 12 months’ military training at Puckapunyal and Bandiana before being deployed to the Second Advanced Ordnance Depot (2AOD) in Vung Tau, near Saigon.
2AOD, where Steve served for a year, was a key 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,” he said.
“It was always full on, and when the ship was in and unloading we’d work all night.”
Steve’s dedication to his job saw him become one of a small group of national servicemen to be promoted from private to lance corporal.
“I was just fortunate enough to be out of the action a little bit and do my job hoping to get home,” he said.
But with an army hospital located at the 2AOD base the realities of war were still ever-present.
“I saw dead and injured people coming into the hospital, and that sort of knocks you around a bit,” he said.
In some respects though, returning home to Australia was no less difficult for Steve and other Vietnam veterans.
“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,” he said.
“We didn’t have a choice – we were over there for our country, doing what we could.”
Steve and other Vietnam soldiers weren’t officially welcomed back to Australia until 1992.
He was one of 25,000 veterans who attended the dedication of Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra.
“That probably closed a lot of issues that most of us had,” he said.
Sharing his experience with family and fellow residents had also been positive.
“A lot of people in the village may not have remembered how conscription started, because if your birthday wasn’t drawn out of the ballot it might not have stuck with you,” Steve said.
Weary Dunlop Village Manager Anna Groome with Steve at the Remembrance Day service.
“So I think people got a lot of information out of it, my brother, who was just a kid at the time, was there too.
“At the end he gave me a hug which is very unusual,” he laughed.
About half of the 41,910 Australian Army troops who served in Vietnam were National Servicemen.
Two hundred National Servicemen were killed and 3000 were injured.