When Francis Sommer returned home for good after two tours with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Iraq and Afghanistan, his parents met him for a homecoming ceremony at an Army base.
It was 3 a.m. The room was brightly lit and a band was playing as families finally were able to hug their loved ones — sons, daughters, fathers, mothers — after months apart. And yet outside the base, the night was still. People were at home, asleep.
“No one in the world knows that people are experiencing this,” said Robert Sommer, Francis’s father. “That was kind of emblematic of what was taking place at the time. The wars themselves were invisible. They were off the radar for most Americans.”
In the two and a half years that followed, Francis — and his parents — struggled. To a casual observer, Francis appeared to be fine. But he suffered internal injuries that caused chronic pain. He’d lost some hearing. And the harsh realities of war left him with post-traumatic stress disorder that left him with anxiety and depression.
He was on a range of medications, but was also self-medicating by drinking heavily. He had twice been arrested for DUI prior to the night of Feb. 11, 2011, when he passed out behind the wheel of his car and hit a pole.
Technically the car wreck caused his death. But Robert has no doubt about where the foundational blame lies.
“Those wars killed him,” Robert said.
On Thursday, Fomite Press published Robert’s new collection of essays about his son, the military, and the wars’ impact on his family and society. The book, Losing Francis: Essays on the Wars at Home, looks at what prompted Francis to join the army after graduating from Olathe East High School, what his experience while enlisted was like, and how it changed both the soldier and his family.
Sommer said he was motivated to write the book out of a concern that the experiences of soldiers and families during the conflicts started during the Bush years would be forgotten. He noted that this month will mark the 15th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
“Who thinks of that anymore?” Robert said. “The Iraq War is already in the past for most people.”
But the impacts of those conflicts linger for thousands of Americans — not to mention the communities in Iraq and Afghanistan where the fighting occurred.
“Our story doesn’t move the Richter scale on the tragedies of that era,” Robert said. “But as all of this was happening, you kind of felt like America just kept going on as normal. America kept shopping.”
A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to The Francis Fund, which supports homeless and needy veterans through the Kansas City VA.