Burst of Joy

Burst of Joy

After spending more than five years in a North Vietnamese camp, Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm is reunited with his family at Travis AFB, March 13, 1973. Burst of Joy is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Associated Press photographer Slava “Sal” Veder. The photograph came to symbolize the end of United States involvement in the Vietnam War, and the prevailing sentiment that military personnel and their families could begin a process of healing after enduring the horrors of war.

Prisoners of war freed from the prison camps in North Vietnam landed at Travis Air Force Base in California. Even though there were only 20 POWs aboard the plane almost 400 family members turned up for the homecoming. Veder was part of big press showing and remembers that: “You could feel the energy and the raw emotion in the air”. The photograph depicts United States Air Force Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm being reunited with his family, after spending more than five years in captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. The centerpiece of the photograph is Stirm’s 15-year-old daughter Lorrie, who is excitedly greeting her father with outstretched arms, as the rest of the family approaches directly behind her.

Despite outward appearances, the reunion was an unhappy one for Stirm. It is depressing to read that three days before the picture was taken Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm received a letter from his wife that she wanted a divorce. His wife took 140,000 of his pay while he was a POW, took his two younger kids, house, car, 40% of his future pension, and $300 a month in child support. She had to pay back only $1500 of his money used on trips with other men. He fought and lost against her in court. He then had to live with his mom in San Francisco taking care of his older kids. It looks more like Prisoner of Wife.

Three decades after the Stirm reunion, the scene, having appeared in countless books, anthologies and exhibitions, remains part of the nation’s collective consciousness, often serving as an uplifting postscript to Vietnam.

Another view of the story:

“But there was more to the story than was captured on film. Three days before Stirm landed at Travis, a chaplain had handed him a Dear John letter from his wife. “I can’t help but feel ambivalent about it,” Stirm says today of the photograph. “I was very pleased to see my children—I loved them all and still do, and I know they had a difficult time—but there was a lot to deal with.” Lorrie says, “So much had happened—there was so much that my dad missed out on—and it took a while to let him back into our lives and accept his authority.” Her parents were divorced within a year of his return. Her mother remarried in 1974 and lives in Texas with her husband. Robert retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1977 and worked as a corporate pilot and businessman. He married and was divorced again. Now 72 and retired, he lives in Foster City, California.

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