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May/June 2022 -   -  


When David Ferriero was confirmed as the Archivist of the United States (the head of the National Archives) in November 2009 he was just the tenth person to hold that presidentially appointed position since it was created in 1934. A native of Beverly, Massachusetts, Ferriero — who will receive the VVA Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Leadership & Education Conference — dropped out of college in 1967, joined the U.S. Navy, and served a tour of duty as a corpsman in the Vietnam War in 1970.

Ferriero’s Navy service — especially his 11-month stint with the First Marine Division’s First Medical Battalion in Da Nang and then on the hospital ship, the U.S.S. Sanctuary — has had a strong impact on his long, distinguished professional career. Before being appointed to lead the National Archives, Ferriero headed the academic libraries at the Massachusetts of Technology and Duke University and then became the director of the 91-branch New York (City) Public library system.

“My training at Bethesda [Naval Hospital] was stuff that I have used every day since,” Ferriero said in an interview in May, the month after he retired from the National Archives. “It gave me a new set of skills about communicating with people, empathizing and listening — all the kinds of things you need for interpersonal relationships. It was all based on the training that I got in the Navy and I used it every day in my professional life.”

Ferriero went on to say that his time on the ground in Da Nang and aboard the Sanctuary, mainly working in psych wards and in triage, had an impact “throughout my entire career at MIT and Duke and the New York Public Library — and especially with the federal government where there seemed to be a new crisis every day.

“My first question when someone streaked into my office screaming about the latest problem was, ‘Is there a life at stake here?’ There was no life at risk in those situations that I was dealing with post-Vietnam, but the experience in the war gave me that sense of perspective.”

The Little Box

Ferriero dropped out of Northeastern University in 1967. “I just hated school, and joined the Navy,” he said in a 2013 interview. Why the Navy? Mainly because his brother, who was serving in the Army, told him: “Whatever you do, don’t join the Army.”

Plus, Ferriero said, he had “a lot of romantic notions about the Navy and the sea because some of my great uncles were fishermen,” and because he “grew up in Beverly, the birthplace of the U.S. Navy.”

Why Ferriero chose to be a corpsman had to do with the fact that his first job during his time at Northeastern (which includes job experiences in its curriculum) was working with the criminally insane at a Boston psychiatric hospital. “I remember distinctly on the enlistment form there was a little box at the end that said ‘volunteer for hospital work,’” he said, “So I said to myself, ‘Navy? Hospital? That’s pretty safe.’ Little did I know that Navy Hospital Corpsmen were humping the boonies in Vietnam at that point.”

After he checked that box and enlisted, Ferriero was sent to hospital corps school at Great Lakes and then to Bethesda Naval and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., for neuro-psych training. Next stop: the old Chelsea Naval Hospital in Massachusetts, which shut its doors in 1974, and where he was put in charge of the psych ward. With a little over a year left in his enlistment, Ferriero got orders assigning him to the 1st Marine Division’s 1st Medical Battalion in Da Nang.

“My orders were to go directly to the field,” he said, but “I didn’t have enough time in my enlistment for field training.” When Ferriero arrived in Vietnam, because his field training consisted of “about 15 minutes on the firing range,” he said, he “got stuck on the psych ward at the First Medical Battalion in Da Nang awaiting orders.”

It “was a strange situation,” Ferriero said, awaiting orders for the next two months. During that time he helped treat emotionally troubled troops, and then his orders came down: to report to the Sanctuary.

Aside from working in the psycho ward on the hospital ship, his duties included helping with triage. Wounded Marines and civilians “were choppered on board all day and all night,” he said. “We were dealing with casualties 24/7.”

David Ferriero ETS’d when he came home from Vietnam just after Christmas 1970. He decided to give college another try, took courses at Harvard, then went back to Northeastern where he earned a liberal arts degree and worked part time at the MIT library, which brought about his decision to study library science. He went on to earn an MA in English from Northeastern and an MS in Library and Information Science from Simmons College in Boston.

Then came the jobs at MIT, Duke, New York City, and, finally, the National Archives of the United States. He was the first librarian to run the institution, taking a job that today has facilities in 15 states and in Washington, D.C., including 13 presidential libraries and The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which, among other things, houses millions of military veterans’ records.

David Ferriero, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, will be at the National Leadership & Education Conference in August in Greenville, South Carolina, to accept the VVA Lifetime Achievement award at the Saturday night banquet.

“I am tremendously honored to be receiving this award,” he said, “and for this opportunity to accept it for all the people who never made it back.”




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