Posted on Fri, Nov. 11, 2005

Portrait of a veteran's grief
After 22 months in Vietnam, Bruce Sommer tried to cope with a changed nation.

Pioneer Press

To view the drawing discussed in this story, click here.

When Bruce Sommer returned to Minnesota from the Vietnam War in 1971, he did not find the refuge that he sought.

Instead of parades, there were marches. Instead of accolades, the Marine sergeant who volunteered for an extended tour felt blame. While he was away, his world had turned upside down. Protests, pollution and graft dominated the news.

So he hunkered down in his mother's basement in Fridley, where he poured a multitude of worldly troubles into an ink drawing that became a portrait of a veteran's grief.

"This was about coming back to a country he didn't recognize anymore," said Vickie Wendel, program director for the Anoka County Historical Society, which recently acquired a print of Sommer's drawing, "Anguish."

Sommer died last year.

He was well known in Mounds View, where he managed the Mermaid Supper Club for 30 years. But Vietnam veterans in Anoka County recently have become acquainted with Sommer through his one surviving piece of art, which, they tell Wendel, captures the sense of alienation they felt upon returning from an unpopular war.

"People will stare and stare for the longest time," Wendel said. "I've seen some tears."

The work has been a steady draw since October, when it joined an exhibit on the Vietnam War at the society's museum in Anoka. Sommer's widow, Pam Sommer of Circle Pines, donated a signed print to a society fundraiser. A local veterans group bought it and re-donated it to the society's collection.

The original is a popular main gallery draw at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago and has toured the country with an exhibit of veterans' art. But it would have been lost forever if Bruce Sommer had his way.

Sommer volunteered for the Marines in June 1967 after graduating from Fridley Senior High School. He was a member of two platoons sworn in with much fanfare at a Minnesota Twins night game at the old Met Stadium, a sendoff that likely made his re-entry all the harder, said Christy Sauro Jr., a North Branch insurance agent who served with Sommer.

"There was this contrast of being cheered off of a baseball field to being jeered when you got back," said Sauro, who has written a soon-to-be published book about one of the "Twins platoons," as they were called.

Sommer's unit saw some of the biggest battles of the war, Sauro said, including the Tet Offensive and the battle for Khe Sanh. Sommer served 22 months in Vietnam and had volunteered for a third tour when in the middle of a patrol, he stood up and said, according to his wife, "This is a stupid way to spend a Saturday night." He was sent home the next day.

He never talked about the war, Pam Sommer said, but he did address feelings about civilian life. He felt condemned for his service and barraged by negative news: big bad government, police brutality, pollution and segregation, she said.

"He struggled after he got home," said Don Sommer of Coon Rapids, who was two years younger than his brother. "It was pretty hard for him. He stayed in the bedroom in the basement for a couple of months."

A free spirit before the war, his brother returned subdued and disillusioned. He'd never shown a particular interest in art, Don Sommer said, but now he devoted himself to a poster-sized ink sketch.

From a distance, the drawing shows a man howling in pain. A closer look reveals images pulled from the turbulent 1970s. Police officers form a human blockade. Black smoke rolls from industrial smokestacks. The U.S. Capitol forms the nose. Skeletal ghosts parade down the neck.

"He would watch the news at night and pick out everything bad in society in 1971," Pam Sommer said. "Those are the doodles he drew on his picture. He didn't know it, but what he had was the experience of any Vietnam vet coming back."

After three months, Sommer emerged from the basement and put the drawing away, unhappy with how it turned out. When it was discovered years later behind a freezer, he threw it away, but another brother rescued it.

"He was one of those individuals who was never happy with anything he did," Pam Sommer said. "He would paint something and throw it away."

After their marriage in 1976, she had the drawing framed and hung it in their home, but he asked her to put it away. It only revived bad memories.

The drawing sat in a trash bag in the garage until 2003 when the sister of another Vietnam veteran came in search of clues to her brother's suicide. Sommer gave her the drawing, which she donated to the Chicago museum.

Sommer died a year later on Sept. 27, 2004, after a protracted battle with type II diabetes that took both legs and left him nearly blind, Pam Sommer said. He was diagnosed with the disease shortly after the war, and he believed exposure to Agent Orange was to blame. He was 55.

In an interview with Sauro in 2002, Sommer said the face in his sketch was loosely patterned after the facial expression of a woman kneeling beside a dead student in a famous photo of the Kent State protests. But some Vietnam veterans look at the piece and see themselves.

"To me, that sketch is as symbolic of the Vietnam War as the Iwo Jima image of the flag raising is for World War II," said Sauro. "Veterans look at it and identify with it."

Mary Bauer can be reached at or 651-228-5311.


The Anoka County Historical Society, 2135 Third Ave. N., Anoka, is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for students 6 to 17 years, and free for historical society members.

Bruce Sommer's print is occasionally taken off display to protect it from the sun. However, staff members are willing to bring it out for anyone who wants to see it.

2005 St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.