In March 1973, a momentous event took place at Travis Air Force Base in California. Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm, a United States Air Force officer who had endured over five years of captivity in a North Vietnamese camp, was finally coming home. The joyous scene of his reunion with his family became the subject of an iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, aptly named “Burst of Joy,” taken by Associated Press photographer Slava “Sal” Veder.
The image came to symbolize the end of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, representing the hope for healing and reconciliation for military personnel and their families after the traumatic experiences of war. Despite the powerful symbolism captured in the photograph, the reality behind the scenes was far from the happy picture it portrayed.
Three days prior to the reunion, Lt. Col. Stirm received a heartbreaking letter from his wife, expressing her desire for a divorce. The family reunion, which seemed so full of joy on the surface, was marred by the impending dissolution of their marriage and the personal struggles they had to face.
After the photo was taken, the family’s challenges continued. Stirm’s wife took a significant portion of his pay while he was a prisoner of war, along with his two younger children, the house, the car, and a substantial portion of his future pension. She also received a substantial monthly child support payment.
Stirm fought a difficult and losing battle in court against his wife’s demands. Subsequently, he had to live with his mother in San Francisco, taking care of his older children while trying to rebuild his life.
As time passed, the family’s difficulties persisted. Within a year of Stirm’s return, his marriage ended in divorce. His ex-wife remarried and moved to Texas with her new husband. Lt. Col. Stirm retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1977 and pursued a career as a corporate pilot and businessman. However, he also experienced another failed marriage.
While the photograph remains a poignant reminder of a moment of happiness amidst great adversity, the reality behind the picture underscores the complex and often bittersweet nature of life. Despite the challenges, Stirm’s daughter, Lorrie Stirm Kitching, who can be seen in the photograph, expressed gratitude for the reunion with her father. She recognized that many families did not get the same opportunity for reunion, and her perspective serves as a reminder of the enduring impact of war on individuals and families.