Portrait of a
After 22 months in
Vietnam, Bruce Sommer tried to cope with a changed
To view the drawing discussed in this story, click
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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 email@example.com or
IF YOU GO
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.