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Before dropping out of college and joining the Navy in 1967, David Ferriero had worked two jobs to help pay for his education. One of them propelled him to become a Navy corpsman in Vietnam and pursue a medical career, but the other ultimately led him to the leadership of the National Archives and Records Administration. Appointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama, Ferriero is 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 explained how it helps guide him to this day.

Your 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. After public schools, I went to Northeastern University, largely because it offered a work co-op program that would help me pay for school. The first job I had was working with the criminally insane at a psychiatric hospital. My second job was at the MIT Library, shelving books.

Why did you interrupt your education?

I just hated school, so I dropped out. I joined the Navy in 1967 for several reasons, but mostly because my brother, who was in the Army, 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?

On the recruitment form—I 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. Also, after working in the hospital, I was interested 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 procedures and I circulated through all the wards for 13 weeks. I had the chance for specialty school, so I volunteered for neuropsychiatric training at Bethesda Naval Hospital and St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington. I received incredible training. We were trained to do things that in other branches only nurses were allowed to do. I was then sent to Chelsea Navy Hospital as a senior corpsman on the psychiatric ward.

But checking that box didn’t work?

No. I got my orders for Vietnam in the fall of 1969. I was to deploy in January 1970 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, but the orders stood. So in January I flew to 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 it landed in Da Nang. As I’d left Chelsea, the folks there said,“When you get to Da Nang, you gotta look up Chief Dusty Rhoads.” For God’s sake, that’s who I ended up reporting to. He looked at me, still in my dress blues, and barked,“What the hell are we going to do with you?”He said until he figured out what to do with me, I was to report to the psych ward at the Da Nang hospital.

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. In boot camp, I’d had like 15 minutes on the firing range. I’d barely used a gun before, let alone figured out how to take it apart and clean it. So there I was, the night before my first firearms inspection, cleaning my bullets. When we left the compound, we were supposed to be armed. So, when I left, I cleverly pulled my shirttail over my holster so it looked like I had my gun. I mean, what 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 weren’t psychotic; they just couldn’t follow orders. They were kids who’d had trouble with authority.You know,“Go to jail or join the Marines.”So here they were, in Vietnam— with a gun. We had combat stress patients too. In training we learned that in Korea there was no effort to deal with those problems on the front. But in Vietnam, we tried to help GIs decompress closer to the field, so if possible they could return to their units. The guilt a guy would associate with leaving his unit sometimes made his condition worse.

Did you ever get your orders?

After two months I was ordered to go to the USS Sanctuary hospital ship, which was in Da Nang harbor. There had been a psych unit on ship, but it had been moved on shore—because some of the patients had jumped overboard. I was assigned to triage.

What was it like on the ship?

All day and all night, wounded were choppered on board, a pretty constant flow of everything you can imagine. In triage, the doctors were incredibly talented and great teachers. Working with them you got to understand what you were looking at and learn the decision-making process. We were also doing a lot of civilian humanitarian work. We spent our days in the harbor and nights looping to Hue and back, because of the threat of enemy frogmen attacking the ship in the harbor at night.

What did you do when your tour was up?

It was just after Christmas 1970 and there was pressure on me to reenlist. But I’d had enough and wanted to finish my degree and go to medical school. I took some summer courses 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 finished school. 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?

Preparing to leave, we were given all kinds of instructions and advice to prepare us for how we might be treated, like do not wear your uniform. We all came back in civvies.

Did you face any hostility?

No. What amazes me about the job I have now, 40 years after I left Vietnam, is this is the first time anyone has been interested in the fact I was in Vietnam. No one wanted to talk about it before. I recall when I was at MIT and a conversation with a friend 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 and she was absolutely horrified.

What were your feelings about the war?

I always felt I was doing something useful and necessary. I was supporting my country. Never have I had any regrets.

How did you get from Vietnam to the head of the National Archives?

After getting my degree in library science, I went back to work at MIT and had extraordinary opportunities there. I then became chief librarian at Duke University and served there for eight years. I was prepared to stay and retire there, but when the largest public library in the country calls, you take that seriously. Five years at the New York Public Library was great preparation for the National Archives.

How did you—a librarian—get this job?

I’m the first real librarian to be appointed. That’s why I didn’t take it seriously when a kid working on the president-elect’s appointments called one Friday. 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?”Ten minutes later, someone from the president’s transition team called and asked if he could come 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 accepted the job and apologized to the kid for not taking him seriously.

You had a surprise in your first meeting with the presidential library directors.

The JFK Library head had his staff search to see if there was any correspondence from me to President Kennedy. They found a letter I had written asking him about his new Peace Corps. A couple of weeks later, the Eisenhower Library found two letters I’d written to President Eisenhower. Then the LBJ Library found the letter I’d written to LBJ about civil rights. Just a few months ago, the JFK Library found—among thousands—my condolence letter to Mrs. Kennedy after the assassination of the president in 1963.Amazing.

How did Vietnam influence you?

It was an important time that contributes to who I am today. I matured and learned a set of competencies that I can point to. I think I have a take on things others don’t. When people come to me thinking the sky is falling, my first question is:“Is there a life at stake here?”That perspective I got from working in triage in Vietnam.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.