On March 17, 1973, the Stirm family was finally reunited. After six long years, POW Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm was once again able to hug his 15-year-old daughter Lorrie Stirm, along with his other three children and his wife. Robert’s flight, as part of Operation Homecoming, brought 20 POWs back home to the Travis Air Force Base in California, and 400 family members waited very impatiently as Robert Stirm delivered his speech on behalf of all the POWs of the Vietnam War. An Air Force fighter pilot, Robert had been shot down over Hanoi in 1967, and for years he had suffered through gunshot wounds, torture, starvation, and illness in the “Hanoi Hilton,” the same prison in which Senator John McCain was held captive and tortured for five and a half years.
Photographer Sal Veder, working for Associated Press, had been standing in a tightly packed bullpen with other journalists when he spotted the family sprinting toward each other. “You could feel the energy and the raw emotion in the air,” Veder said. He started taking pictures as quickly as he could, thankful for the overcast weather conditions that created the perfect amount of lighting. After he had gotten a handful of pictures, Veder ran to the women’s restroom, which had been turned into a makeshift darkroom. Photographers from United Press International were hoarding the men’s room (to use as a darkroom as well), so Veder needed to work quickly to get an image out to the public before they did.
But first he had to find out if any of the shots were any good. After all, he had taken the pictures very quickly and had been photographing moving objects. There was a good chance none of his images would even come close to what he wanted. To Veder’s surprise, he had captured not just one, but six fantastic photographs of the family. On top of that, he and his AP colleague had developed those six images in less than half an hour. His favorite image, which he immediately titled Burst of Joy, was sent out to the press and published in newspapers nationwide. In 1974, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t have the happiest of endings. While the image became symbolic of the end of the Vietnam War and also served as a (small) hero’s welcome to all the troops who did not receive support upon returning home, it turned into a painful memory for Robert. Robert had been released from the prison camp on March 14, three days before his return home. On the same day as his release, Robert received mail that had not reached him while he was imprisoned. One of the envelopes contained a Dear John letter from his wife, Loretta. Robert and Loretta divorced the next year, and Loretta remarried. When Burst of Joy won the Pulitzer Prize, every member of the Stirm family received a copy of the photograph. To this day, they all have their copies displayed on a wall in their homes… except Robert. He said he just can’t bring himself to display it.
Lorrie, now married and a mother of two sons, sees the picture in a different light. “We have this very nice picture of a very happy moment,” she said, “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.”