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Connections | Magazine

How strangers honored my uncle, who went M.I.A. in Vietnam, for years

“You don’t know me, or I you, but I’ve worn Edwin Pearce’s name around my wrist,” one wrote.

Strangers sent the author their bracelets engraved with her uncle's name.
Strangers sent the author their bracelets engraved with her uncle's name.Jessica Pearce Rotondi

The handwriting on the padded envelope wasn’t familiar, and there was a heft to the bubble wrap that made me pause. Few friends even knew my temporary quarantine address at my in-laws' in Maryland, where I rarely left the suburban tangle of streets that mapped my husband’s childhood. But this gift was clearly left on their doorstep for me. I slit the package open.

Inside was a metal band the size of a woman’s wrist. It bore my uncle’s name — S/SGT. Edwin Pearce — and the date he disappeared: 3/29/1972.

Jack was 24 when his Air Force plane was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile over Laos. Eyewitnesses to the crash reported hearing “so many survival beepers they couldn’t count them,” but none of the 14 crew members was ever recovered alive. Over the decades, at least 13 CIA reports would emerge claiming different fates for Jack, my mother’s brother. Some said that he was a prisoner of war, while others claimed his bones were being held for ransom by freedom fighters. Each report was unverifiable, censored by heavy black bars that outweighed the little information my mother could glean from them.

Jack was among the 1,303 American soldiers recorded as missing when the Vietnam War ended (the number has since been updated to more than 1,500). Their names were printed on bracelets by a group dedicated to raising awareness for MIAs. Voices in Vital America manufactured over 5 million cuffs with the name, rank, and date of loss of each soldier. At the height of their popularity, they were worn by everyone from Sonny and Cher to Bob Hope. Mom had worn Jack’s name until her bracelet broke in two, burying it in a drawer for me to find decades later. But the cuffs were not meant to be kept; if the soldier whose name was imprinted on your bracelet returned home, you were supposed to send it to the soldier’s family as a thank-you for their loved one’s service.

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Still on the front stoop, the mail truck long gone, I slipped the new-but-familiar bracelet over my arm and felt my body flood with warmth as I read the stranger’s letter: “You don’t know me, or I you, but I’ve worn Edwin Pearce’s name around my wrist for many years. I put the enclosed bracelet on at the age of 16 (soon after his loss) and through the years, through my own tour of duty in the Army, through my college years and after.” The sender had read What We Inherit, my book about my family’s 36-year search for Jack and the loss of my mother, and wanted to return his bracelet to a living relative.

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Another letter and bracelet soon followed, from a 77-year-old woman who had worked at the restaurant down the street from Mom’s childhood home in Pennsylvania for a third of her life: “I used to live in Milford and worked at Apple Valley for 25 years. I have kept Jack’s bracelet in my jewelry box for all this time.”

Bracelets carry power from the moment we put them on. As children, friendship bracelets cement us to one another, acting as promises we tie around our wrists. Putting the bracelets on my own body after months of little human contact, at a time when people donned gloves and masks before venturing out into the world, felt like remembering a dream of a former life.

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I look at my wrist and think of my mother, waiting for Jack to come home all those years ago. I was supposed to be in Milford that very month, sharing the book I’d written about her and Jack with the community that raised them. Instead, I was missing Mom intensely, wearing her brother’s name on my wrist as I wandered from room to room in a house that wasn’t my own, hearing the music of my bracelets and wishing I could conjure my family from cold metal.

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Jessica Pearce Rotondi is the author of What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.