When Jessica Pearce Rotondi lost her mother to breast cancer in 2009, she had no idea of what she would gain: the chance to become a part of her military family's history. The unexpected journey took her from her childhood home in Massachusetts to the lush mountains of Laos, where her airman uncle was shot down in 1972.
"Sending a loved one away and not knowing if they'll walk through the door again is an incredible sacrifice," Rotondi said.
It's a sacrifice her mother's family made multiple times. For not only was her Uncle Jack shot down alongside his AC-130 crew during the "secret war" in the neutral nation of Laos, her grandfather — Jack's father — fell from the sky too, spending two and a half years in a German POW camp during WWII.
As "What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family's Search for Answers" so arrestingly confesses in its first sentence, Rotondi comes from "a family that loses children."Rotondi spent a decade researching and writing her debut novel, a deeply personal family memoir and obscure history lesson released this April. Historical supporting evidence, it turns out, would be hard to come by.
Read more about Vietnam War vets traveling to find answers.
"Much about what happened in Laos has only recently been declassified. I embedded photographs of some of the reports and letters I found directly into the book, because I wanted to recreate that sense of expectation to show how the force of a single document can change a family's hopes," Rotondi, a Brooklyn resident, said. "Getting CIA officers, refugees and former soldiers on the record about their role in the war was a slow exercise in trust-building but led to some incredible conversations."
Before her mother's death, conversation about Rotondi's uncle and grandfather's wartime experiences were few. A chance discovery of a hidden-in-the-closet file cabinet just hours after her mother's passing launched Rotondi onto what would eventually become "What We Inherit." It involved thousands of hours of research, sifting through redacted files, yellowed newspaper clippings and maps of questionable accuracy.
Rotondi, whose work has been published in the likes of The Huffington Post and The History Channel, traveled to Southeast Asia in 2013 to locate her uncle's crash site. She was not the first family member to do so; she was simply retracing her grandpa's steps through Laos as he obsessively searched for answers about his missing son years earlier.
The process of writing her family's tragedies reminded Rotondi of the incredible strength of military families.
"I had the incredible privilege of speaking to other families of the missing for this book, and the biggest takeaway from them was the strength of the unspoken bond between military families," she said. "I read somewhere that we never truly die until our name stops being spoken aloud. There is power in talking about our lost and missing veterans — especially with the next generation."
"What We Inherit," a book worth reading, ensures that will never happen on Rotondi's watch.