Elizabeth Edwards: Her Life, Politics, and Passions
The soldier had dark hair and a plain face and was barely in his 20s. What stood out most, though, was his sullenness. He had come with Edwards's father, Vincent Anania, who was serving in Vietnam, to spend Thanksgiving at their home in Camp Zama outside Tokyo. He was not physically injured. "But he obviously had some sort of a breakdown," she recalls. "We were an incredibly outgoing family and usually could pull somebody in." But for all their efforts, "he was never joyful." Lost in his own thoughts, the young man sat in a wooden-armed chair, leaning slightly forward, staring at the evergreens outside the living room window. A few days later, he returned to Vietnam. "We could see how disturbed he was, and yet they were sending him back," she says.
Until then, Mary Beth—as Edwards was known at 16—had been shielded from the gruesome details of military life. The Ananias were a buoyant bunch: Her navy pilot father once did a dance routine at the officers' club wearing a skirt and pink bikini top. Around the house, conversations were spirited too. "Growing up in an Italian family, you use a harsh tone and 10 minutes later everybody forgets about it," she says. One thing Vincent Anania never discussed, however, was what he saw in combat. "They'd be bombing someplace and my dad would talk about brownies that my grandmother sent," Edwards says. "When he would come back from Vietnam, or we would talk to him on the phone—in that crazy old way where there would be a crackle and you'd have to wait and talk back—he would always be positive."
Yet hints of war's ravages seeped in, and not only in the form of a brooding Thanksgiving guest. When a few Camp Zama girls were invited to a local military hospital, Edwards put on her dowdy black-and-white cheerleading uniform and stood at the bed of an injured soldier. She wanted to touch him but couldn't: Most of his body was wrapped in bandages, and he was unable to move even his head. "I felt impotent," she says. "You have this notion that you're going to come in and make people happy, as if seeing some high school cheerleader is going to change what his life is going to look like in two years."
Growing up in Japan during the '50s and '60s offered the three Anania children a sober lesson in international relations. For some Japanese, Americans were still occupiers; the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II were fresh memories. Protests erupted when nuclear submarines docked at the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, about an hour and a half away. "Walking down the street, we had vivid experiences of love and hate," says Edwards's younger brother, Jay Anania. "One person would want to practice English, and another would come up with a very icy stare." While Jay took these reactions personally—as the only boy, he was more likely to get beaten up—"Elizabeth," he says, "was always able to understand it in terms of what America was to the rest of the world."