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Artist Roger Blum, now 78, grew up in a troubled Seventh-day Adventist home in Northern California. That upbringing led him to register as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. In 1965, when he was beginning a master’s degree program and trying to establish himself as an illustrator, he received a draft notice.
Soon he rode a bus to Fort Polk, La., where he refused to carry firearms. When he wouldn’t work on Saturday, his drill sergeant dismissed him to the chapel. “I kinda hid in the pulpit,” Blum recalls. Then the Army selected him and four others as the first soldiers to go to Vietnam solely to paint combat scenes in the war zone.
Plenty of official photographers (and war correspondents with cameras) were already in Vietnam, but the Army asked the artists to express their own observations and feelings. Blum carried sketch pads, pens, colored pencils, and a small watercolor set. Blum tried to soak in the mood, the lighting, and any action, as he quickly sketched his impressions. He also took photos to corroborate details for later renderings.
Blum saw a lot to paint. Vietnamese shot in front of him. Enemy snipers. Helicopters whirring off to the Mekong Delta and Cambodia. One time, Blum hiked to the Montagnard people in the Vietnamese highlands to sketch the Army bringing medicine. Here friendly villagers insisted he and the soldiers eat ground-up ox ears and rice wine. Blum kept drawing.
Blum’s job required him to look hard at the results of combat, an especially difficult task for a conscientious objector: “I didn’t like to have to paint combat situations because I saw human beings dying. I saw body bags in numerous places, especially airports.” Even now, the memories force Blum to blink back tears: “I’m sitting in that helicopter, with the guy at my knees, and I was sketching him, and he had shrapnel wounds across his face.”
Blum recalls that “painting combat scenes was not relaxing. It was intense and personal.” He had to leap from helicopters and run for cover while battles raged. Officers told him to carry a weapon, but he wouldn’t, preferring to trust in God: “I admit that at that time ‘trust in the Lord’ meant stand close to someone who had a machine gun!”
But amid life-and-death situations, another combat artist who was a Christian stunned Blum with his visible happiness and freedom in Christ, and his challenge to Blum: Examine your theology. The “grace through faith” Blum read about in Romans transformed his legalistic understanding of the Bible.
Blum’s Vietnam paintings eventually traveled to the Pentagon. The secretary of the Army chose Blum’s Swamp Patrol for his office. The Indianapolis Art Center and the National Constitution Center have exhibited the entire collection, and soon they’ll be on permanent display at the U.S. Army Museum at Fort Belvoir, Va.
After the war, Blum continued seeking Biblical answers. Neighbors invited him to their Bible church where he grew and fell in love with Christ. Blum moved from commercial artwork and college teaching into painting wildlife and landscapes that show God’s creative glory.
Blum now paints in a studio on the second floor of his home in Stillwater, Minn., where he lives with Renée, his wife of 25 years. He describes his oil painting style as expressive impressionism and is not shy about expressing the way God impresses him: “I give God all the glory, even for the times I didn’t know Him, because He was with me. … I dedicate my work to Him.”
—Sharon Dierberger is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate