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David Ferriero served as a Navy corpsman in the Vietnam War and thought he would pursue a medical career following his return.

A few months ago, the JFK Library found my letter of condolences to Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of the president in 1963. All presidential records, including letters, are kept.

Preserving America’s Documents: David Ferriero

Before dropping out of college and joining the Navy in 1967, David Ferriero had worked a couple of jobs to help pay for his education. One of them propelled him to become a Navy corpsman in Vietnam and then pursue a medical career, but the other ultimately led him to the leadership of National Archives and Records Administration. Appointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama, Ferriero is only the 10th Archivist of the United States, and the only librarian to ever hold the position. His tenure has seen the most massive document declassification effort in U.S. history. In a recent interview with Vietnam editor Roger L. Vance, Ferriero recalled his Vietnam service and how it helps guide him to this day.

The path to your profession started early, but it wasn’t very straight, was it?
I grew up in Beverly, Mass., one of four kids of an Irish mother and Italian father, not unusual for the area. My father’s father came to the Unites States in the early 1900s and my mom’s grandfather came from Ireland in the late 19th century. I went to Beverly public schools and then to Northeastern University in Boston, largely because they offered a work co-op program that would help me pay for my education. The very first job I had there was working with the criminally insane at a psychiatric hospital. My second job in the program was at the MIT Library, shelving books. That’s why I’m here today.

Why did you abruptly interrupt your education?
That was in 1967; there was a draft going on, but for me that was not the impetus for me to enlist. I just hated school, so I dropped out. I joined the Navy in ’67 for a number of reasons, but mostly because my brother, who was in the Army at the time, told me, “Whatever you do, don’t join the Army!” I also had a lot of romantic notions about the Navy and the sea, because some of my great uncles were fishermen, and, after all, I grew up in Beverly, the birthplace of the U.S. Navy.

Did you think you’d go to Vietnam?
I had no illusions. But, on the recruitment form I had to fill out—I still remember this distinctly—in the lower left-hand corner, there was a box you could check to volunteer for hospital work. I checked it and figured, this way, I’d never get sent to Vietnam. Another reason I checked the box was, after my experience working in the psychiatric hospital, I was interested in pursuing a career in medicine.

Was your training what you’d hoped for?
At hospital corps school at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, basic training included many kinds of medical procedures. I circulated through all the wards—surgery, pediatrics, psychiatric, the whole deal—for 13 weeks. Then I had the opportunity for specialty school, so I volunteered for neuropsychiatric training at Bethesda Naval Hospital and St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, D.C. I received incredible training in both the medical side and the neuropsychiatric side. I can’t say enough good things about the quality of training and how well prepared we were. We had a lot of interaction with medics in other branches, and I believe the Navy training was exceptional. We were trained to do things that in other branches, only nurses were allowed to do. I’ve always been thankful for that. I was then assigned to Chelsea Navy Hospital as a senior corpsman on the psychiatric ward for about a year and a half.

So checking that box almost kept you out of Vietnam?
Almost. I got my orders for Vietnam in the fall of 1969 and go directly to the field. I didn’t have time left in my enlistment to take field training, a fact that I pointed out to them at Chelsea. My superiors communicated that fact to Washington, but the orders stood. So in January I was on a plane for Vietnam. When the plane landed in Okinawa, where the incoming troops were issued equipment, everyone got off except me. I was the only passenger when the plane landed in Da Nang. When I’d left Chelsea, the folks there said, “When you get to Da Nang, you gotta look up Chief Dusty Rhodes.” For god’s sake, that’s who I ended up reporting to. He took one look at me, still in my dress blues, and barked, “What the hell are we going to do with you?”

Were you sent out into the field anyway?
No, Chief Rhodes said until he’d figure out what to do with me, I was to report to the psych ward at the Da Nang hospital of the 1st Medical Battery, 1st Marine Division. He told me to report to Corpsman Gamble. I said, “That wouldn’t be Norman Gamble, would it?” Turns out it was. Gamble was a year ahead of me at Beverly High School and we had been good friends.

How did you adjust to life in Da Nang?
I was issued field gear, with a flak jacket and a .45, just waiting to be sent in the field. You know, in boot camp, I’d had like 15 minutes on the firing range. I’d barely even used a gun before, let alone figure out how to take it apart and clean it. So there I was, the night before my first firearms inspection, cleaning my bullets. It is very fortunate they never sent me out on patrol, which was typically part of the routine. The PX was about a mile up the road, and when you left the compound you were supposed to be armed. So, when I left, I pulled my shirttail down over my holster so it looked like I had my gun. I mean, what the hell was I going to do with it? I might have shot somebody, like myself.

How was the work in the psych ward?
The GIs there were mostly kids who probably had character disorders. They were not psychotic, they just couldn’t follow orders. You know, kids who’d had trouble with authority, maybe trouble with the law. You know, “Go to jail or join the Marines.” So here they were, in Vietnam—each with a gun. We had combat stress patients too. The treatment certainly changed over time. In training we learned that in Korea there was no effort to deal with those problems on the front lines. But in Vietnam, we tried to help GIs to decompress closer to the field, so if possible they could return to their units. This place in Da Nang was one of those. You know, the guilt a guy would associate with leaving his unit sometimes made his condition worse.

Did you ever get your orders?
Finally, after two months, I was ordered to go to the hospital ship USS Sanctuary, which was in Da Nang harbor. It was right when the Repose left, so we were the only hospital ship left there. There had been a psych unit on ship, but it had been moved on shore—because of some incidents with patients jumping overboard. I worked in triage and also with hospital personnel paperwork. Yet another small-world thing happened on the ship. The corpsman in charge of triage was an old friend from Chelsea Navy Hospital, Jim Maroney. He is now raising camels in Oswego, N.Y.

What was it like on the ship?
Wounded were choppered on board all day and all night. It was a constant flow of everything you can imagine. In triage, the doctors were incredibly talented and as well as great teachers. Working with them you got to understand what you were looking at and learn the decision-making process in triage: how to determine who was in the most distress and who needed attention first. We were also doing a lot of civilian humanitarian work, reconstruction work, especially for kids. Some was war-related, but some was not, like cleft palates and things like that, and of course treating other ailments. We spent our days in Da Nang harbor, and at night we would loop in a big circle up to Hue and back. We did this every night because of the threat of enemy frogmen attacking the ship if we stayed in the harbor overnight.

What did you do when your tour was up?
I was there until just after Christmas 1970. There was a lot of pressure on me to reenlist. But I’d had enough and wanted to finish my degree and go to medical school because of my Navy experience. I took some summer courses at Harvard to get all my basic requirements in. My first round of med school applications yielded no offers. I needed to work, so I got my old job back at the MIT library while I attended Northeastern to complete my liberal arts degree. They created opportunities for me and gave me new assignments and responsibilities. That was when I decided to study library science.

What was it like returning home from the war?
Preparing to leave Vietnam, we were given all kinds of instructions and advice to prepare us for how we might be treated, like do not wear your uniform. So we all came back in civvies.

Did you face any hostility?
No. But the thing that amazes me about the job I have now, 40 years after I left Vietnam, is that this is the first time that anyone has acknowledged the fact I was in the service or was in Vietnam. No one ever talked about it or inquired about Vietnam when I was at MIT, Duke or the New York Public Library. I still recall when I was at MIT and a conversation with a close friend somehow turned to the subject of the Vietnam War. When I told her I was there and began talking about it, a strange look came across her face. She was absolutely horrified that I had served in Vietnam.

What were your feelings about the war at the time?
When I left, it was getting close to the end, but I always felt I was doing something useful and necessary, and that I was supporting my country. Never then nor after the fact have I had any regrets or feelings that I’d made a mistake to join. In fact, I would not be the person I am today without that experience.

How did you get from Vietnam to the head of the National Archives?
When I came back, I was a much better student. After getting my degree in library science, I went back to work at MIT and had extraordinary opportunities. I then was offered the chief librarian job at Duke University and served there for eight years. I love Duke and was prepared to stay and retire there. But, when the largest public library in the country calls, you take that seriously. My five years at the New York Public Library turned out to be great preparation for the National Archives because of the dynamics, tensions and politics between the mayor’s office and city council, much like that between the White House and Congress. In New York there were 91 facilities and 2,500 staff members; here we have 44 facilities and 3,300 employees.

How did you—a librarian—get this job?

I’m the 10th National Archivist but the first real librarian to be appointed. That’s why I didn’t take it seriously when a young kid working on the president-elect’s appointments called one Friday evening. I said: “Sorry you’re talking to the wrong guy. You’re looking for someone who gave a lot of money to the campaign.” He said, “Will you think about it over the weekend?” About 10 minutes later, someone else from the president’s transition team called and asked if he could come to New York to see me. He made it clear that the president was looking for someone to play a key role in his “open government initiative,” and the archivist would be integral to establishing a new level of transparency. I became more interested and saw how my background could help in what they were doing. So I accepted the job, apologized to the kid for not taking him seriously and came to Washington.

You had quite a surprise in one of your first meetings with the directors of the presidential libraries.
The director of the JFK Library had had his staff do a search to see if there was any correspondence from me to President Kennedy, and they found a letter I had written to the president asking him about his new Peace Corps. The other library heads were stunned. A few weeks later, the Eisenhower Library found two letters I’d written to President Eisenhower. Then the LBJ Library found my letter I’d written to President Johnson, congratulating him on his civil rights legislation. And, just a few months ago, the JFK Library found—among hundreds of thousands—my letter of condolences to Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of the president in 1963. Amazing.

All letters to presidents are kept?
Since the Archives was established by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934, it has kept all the presidential records, including letters. At a point in the Clinton presidency, they began to just keep a sampling of the letters. But when President Obama came into office, we returned to keeping everything again.

Not that any wouldn’t, but could a president choose not to have a library?
They don’t have to have a library, but they do have to turn all of their records over to the Archives, it’s the law. It’s the role of the National Archives to be responsible for ensuring that people have access to the authentic records so there is no opportunity to manipulate the records.

How active is the Archives in releasing formerly classified documents?
We still have a lot of classified content, including Vietnam War material. In 2009, however, President Obama issued a directive to establish the National Declassification Center and mandated the review of 480 million pages of classified documents. About 390 million pages have gone through an initial review, and of those about 85 percent have been released.

Are there documents that will always be classified?
There are two criteria by which documents can remain classified, and those involve weapons of mass destruction and national security. The oldest documents that were still classified were released at the order of Leon Panetta upon his leaving office as head of the CIA. It was formulas for invisible ink used in World War I. The reason for the release was that my staff had discovered that the formulas had already been published—in 1931!

How did, and does, your Vietnam experience influence you?
It was for me a very important period of life that contributes to who I am today. In Vietnam I matured and learned a set of competencies that I can point to. I’ve told my staff that I have a perspective that others don’t. When people come to me with a problem, thinking the sky is falling, my first question is always, “Is there a life at stake here?” That is a perspective I got from working in triage in Vietnam.