Photograph by Stephen Voss

The common thread: secrecy

March 6, 2023


Calista Anderson, ’20, is telling her family’s difficult story to support a community making sacrifices for our nation.
By Matthew Dewald

When Calista Anderson’s name and photo popped up in an Associated Press story distributed nationwide in December 2022, her phone buzzed nonstop.

Many of her Spider pals reached out with a similar quip: “Your name is Calista?” (She’s Callie to them.) But they were really writing because they’d just learned about a deep loss borne by a friend with whom they’d gone to the library and the lodges, and they wanted to show their support.

The AP article presented Anderson as the face of the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation, which provides scholarships and other financial support to the families of recently deceased CIA officers and contractors. Anderson works for it as an events coordinator, helping organize fundraising dinners, golf outings, and other events to support its mission of serving these families. Families, the AP article made clear, like hers.

Just a few weeks after her 12th birthday, Anderson’s mother was killed in Afghanistan. The death of her mother, who was a CIA station chief, and six others came during a meeting with a suicide bomber posing as an intelligence asset. The loss was a total shock to Anderson, who didn’t know that her mom worked for the CIA.

You’re not sure who you can talk to or how much you can say.

At the time, the family lived in Stafford, Virginia, a place chock full of federal workers with an implicit understanding of her family’s sacrifice and the inappropriateness of curiosity. But still, everyone knew about her family’s experience. Coming to Richmond meant a new beginning. On campus, with hallmates and classmates, she could be just Callie on her own terms.

“I really relished the opportunity that that wasn’t my identity,” she said. “I could explore and figure out who I was and what I was interested in and wanted to do.” She started out in Moore Hall, majored in global studies, and went off to London to study art history in graduate school.

Her education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels was aided by scholarships from the nonprofit where she now works. In 2021–22, it provided 73 family members with more than $1.7 million in scholarships and other support. Anderson is one of its eight employees.

Anderson emphasizes that the spouses and children the foundation serves have a diversity of experiences. Some, like her, lost a parent or spouse suddenly in the line of duty, while others lost loved ones to accidents or illness. “The common thread is secrecy,” she said. “You’re not sure who you can talk to or how much you can say.”

Though some days are draining and she needs to step back, working at the foundation also gives her unexpected moments of joy. Sometimes, someone will quietly pull her aside and say, “I knew your mom,” and share stories. “People are so caring and so giving,” she said. “A lot of people are very supportive.”

She recognizes that the attention that her story draws — her mother’s death made international news and is depicted in the film Zero Dark Thirty, for example — puts her in a unique position within this unique community, where few of the other families’ sacrifices get similar attention. That discrepancy motivates her immersion in the foundation’s mission and her willingness to share her story.

“Maybe I’ll hit a point where I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I can keep doing this every day,’ but right now, I’m really grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given,” she said. “There are so many people who don’t know about our foundation. It’s important we get out there and talk about the life-changing work that we do.”