Thursday, April 18, 2013

Burst of Joy

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After spending more than five years in a North Vietnamese POW 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. POWs leaving the prison camps in North Vietnam left on the American Lockheed C-141 Starlifter strategic airlift aircraft nicknamed the Hanoi Taxi. On March 17 the plane 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," he said. Veder then rushed to the makeshift photo developing station in the ladies room of the Air Base washrooms, United Press International were in the men's.

It is depressing to read that three days before the picture was taken he 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.
He has taken a townhouse near San Francisco, where he lives with his mother—recently divorced herself—and his two older children, 16-year-old Lorrie and 15-year-old Bo. The younger two, Cindy, 11, and Roger, 13, usually visit on weekends. ....Last month came the judge's decision, and for Stirm it was a galling defeat. His wife was awarded custody of Cindy and Roger, plus the Stirms' $24,000 suburban home and their car. Stirm must pay $300 a month child support. In addition, he was ordered to hand over 40% of whatever pension he will eventually receive. Although the court denied Loretta a share of his POW allotment and refused any alimony claim, it ruled nothing could be done about the $136,000 she'd already received. She was ordered to pay back $1,500 she'd spent traveling with other men, but Stirm was hardly mollified. "I'd like someone—maybe the federal government—to step forward and grant me my constitutional rights," he declared bitterly. "My service was honorable; hers was not."
 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.
As for the rest of the family, Robert Jr. is a dentist in Walnut Creek, California; he and his wife have four children, the oldest of whom is a marine. Roger, a major in the Air Force, lives outside Seattle. Cindy Pierson, a waitress, resides in Walnut Creek with her husband and has a daughter in college. And Lorrie Stirm Kitching, now 47, is an executive administrator and mother of two sons. She lives in Mountain View, California, with her husband. All four of Robert Stirm Sr.'s children have a copy of Burst of Joy hanging in a place of honor on their walls. But he says he can't bring himself to display the picture.
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. That the moment was considerably more fraught than we first assumed makes it all the more poignant and reminds us that not all war casualties occur on the battlefield.
"We have this very nice picture of a very happy moment," Lorrie says, "but every time I look at it, I remember the families that weren't reunited, and the ones that aren't being reunited today—many, many families—and I think, I'm one of the lucky ones."
 

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