Steve Hooke was just 19 years old when he was sent to Vietnam with the Navy.
“As a young fellow, I was driving one of the six landing craft on HMAS Sydney – the ‘Vung Tau Ferry’ – dropping soldiers and their gear off up on the beach, or up the river a bit, right near the end of the war,” he said.
“My dad was a returned soldier, and I joined the navy straight after high school… I always used to go to Anzac Day, and I remember watching my dad [and his mates march]… When I got back from Vietnam, I didn’t think of myself as a veteran, because I always thought they were.”
Now, more than 40 years later, Steve is a voluntary guide at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
“It’s a labour of love,” he said. “As a young naval officer, I got my ticket on the bridge of HMAS Brisbane [which is now on display at the Memorial]…
“It’s such an important place, and I guess that’s what it’s like for most of us here.”
“My wife knew I was interested in the War Memorial and she just happened to see this tiny little ad in The Canberra Times about an Information Day for aspiring volunteers,” he said.
“At the time, I’d just finished full-time service – nearly 40 years in the Navy – and I always wanted to be a part of it. My dad was a veteran, and I was here in Canberra … and she said, ‘Hey, you better get there today,’ and that was it.”
A decade on, he wouldn’t have it any other way. He remains passionate about volunteering at the Memorial and helps train new voluntary guides.
“It is such a special place,” Steve said.
“As a voluntary guide, you are the face of the Memorial in the eyes of the public… You don’t have to have been in the military or know all about military history … We can teach you that. All we want is people with the right attitude, who want to be a part of this special place, and want to help tell the story of the Memorial in a factual, accurate and stimulating way.”
Steve is one of almost 200 volunteers who currently donate their time, working in a variety of roles across the Memorial. They range in age from 18 to more than 90 and volunteer for roles in the Research Centre as well as Family History, Collection Services, and Art, but most work in Commemoration and Visitor Engagement.
“Volunteers come from all walks of life,” Steve said. “But there’s one unifying thing, and that’s this place here: they want to be a part of it and they want to represent this place and uphold and promote its very special, unique place in the world, and help maintain its reputation."
Each year, more than 100 voluntary guides provide free daily tours to about 60,000 visitors.
“So much of Australia is tied up in here," Steve said. "Our Director says it’s the soul of the nation, and I always tell my group of visitors that it is the most important secular shrine in Australia. It encompass everything: a shrine for commemoration, a world-class museum, and a research centre and archive … Nothing else in the world does what this place does.”