Francis Sommer had planned a vacation to Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain to visit an Army buddy. The friendship arose from a particularly fraught 2006 deployment to Afghanistan, and the two looked forward to reconnecting in a peaceful, beautiful place.
But it was Robert Sommer, Francis’ father, who spent the day with the friend.
Francis was killed in 2011.
“I am, at this moment, Francis,” Sommer writes in his new book of essays, "Losing Francis.” “Not his father, not his proxy. I am him. He is here having the day he was supposed to have only weeks after he was gone. He planned to be here, to take the trip I’m taking now, over three years later, to get out on the water ... to let wind and spray and wildlife-rich marshland purge the demons of war and the demons of returning home.”
Francis grew up in Johnson County and graduated from Olathe East High School. And it was in Johnson County, not on foreign soil, where he died. His death was partially the result of a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, partially the result of those congregating demons he’d wished to purge.
But, Sommer tells KCUR, he doesn’t cast blame for his son’s car accident in 2011, though it seems blaming the Army would be easy. Like many young people, Francis felt he’d run out of viable options, says Sommer, who teaches English at the University of St. Mary. Francis was barely out of high school, but the jobs he found weren’t satisfying and he wasn’t in the right mindset for college.
“So, one day, he came home with a sheaf of brochures, and my response was that I was really glad he came to me rather than just doing it.”
The family spent several days thinking about Francis’ idea to enlist. Sommer suggested that the most practical approach would be to take advantage of the Army's training in HVAC or auto repair. Francis had another idea.
“He tells the recruiter, I want to do the hardest thing you can do. I can still feel myself exhaling at that moment because I knew the recruiter would come through for him. And he did.”
Sommer and his wife Heather, a teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District, didn’t think of themselves as a “military family.”
“No generational lineage of military careers on either side leading up to Francis’ enlistment,” he writes in the essay “Remedial Army.” “No hearths filled with medals, photographs, or memorial flags looming when we visited grandparents.”
When Francis first earned a coin or a badge, he and Heather turned to each other and said it was just like Boy Scouts, Sommer says.
“When he enlisted it was early 2002. We were not at war at the time. We thought the Army was kind of stepping in and saving us; we thought he would deploy to Italy or Germany.”
Sommer describes what followed as being continually “ambushed or blindsided” as the United States stepped into war. Francis eventually deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan and was exposed to every savagery war offers up. Sommer doesn’t know how many people his son killed.
Even as Francis was “hardwiring” his parents “into the war itself and all of its horrors,” they opposed the U.S. invasions. Sommer wrote letters to editors at publications all over the nation and was a guest commentator on NPR. He wondered about balancing his own opposition with supporting his soldier son, but he says Francis understood — he wasn’t sold on the sagacity of the wars either.
The 11 essays in "Losing Francis" almost fit together like chapters of one narrative. In one, Sommer eloquently explains that service members, upon returning home from conflicts, “may suffer from the recognition that their experiences are not part of a larger narrative shared by others.”
This is particularly true for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, during which little has changed domestically; relatively few families have skin in the game and the wars rage on with scant media coverage.
And service members often return to an environment that stagnates their healing process, if it has ever begun at all.
So, when Francis’ alcoholism clearly had gotten the better of him in the nearly four years between his honorable discharge and his death, Heather wondered if the Army’s strict “leave no one behind” rule might have saved him — if only it had somehow translated into the civilian world.
“She didn’t blame the people he was with, only regretted that leaving no one behind was a code that also got left behind, and it might have saved his life,” Sommer writes in “Rust on the Hillsides.”
The situation is not hopeless, however. Sommer says that statistics show the rate of homelessness among veterans is dropping. And the Francis Fund, which he and Heather started shortly after Francis’ death, has raised over $25,000 for the Kansas City VA. He sees this as evidence that the cultural narrative might be changing.
“The book is not about me. It’s not about my family,” Sommer says. “It’s about our culture, it’s about these wars, and it’s a tribute to my son, but in a sense it’s not about him.”
Moreover, Sommer says, he understands that globally his family’s tragedy “doesn't move the meter.”
“America really adopted well that it was a victim and the idea that anybody else’s victimhood was somehow less than ours,” Sommer says.
The lack of compassion for the victims of our destruction in other nations is not so different from the lack of compassion for our returning troops.
He says we're left with soldiers whose trauma is invisible to the people back home — to those same people who've fallen in love with yellow ribbon magnets, patriotic T-shirts, and "God Bless America" at ballgames. He calls this veneered version of war obscene, and he wants his essays to reflect it back at those who participate in it.
“I hope (the book) would in some way – and this is an idealistic, absurd notion – that it would in some small way contribute to a turning of the culture toward a more considerate, more intelligent culture.”
Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.