Burst of Joy


For a war where the public opinion was shaped by the photographs from the homefront and the warfront, it was fitting that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended with an especially poignant image of joy, an ephemeral meeting of homefront and warfront. 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.

In Burst of Joy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, Associated Press photographer Slava “Sal” Veder captured this moment. Taken on March 17, 1973 at Travis Air Force Base in California, 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. Stirm was shot down over Hanoi on 27 October 1967, while leading a flight of F-105s on a bombing mission, and not released until 14 March 1973.

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. Three days before he arrived in the United States, the same day he was released from captivity, Stirm received a Dear John letter from his wife Loretta informing him that their relationship was over. In 1974 the Stirms divorced and Loretta remarried. All of the family members depicted in the picture received copies of it after Burst of Joy was announced as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. They all display it prominently in their homes, except Stirm, who says he cannot bear to look at it.

See Donald Goldstein’s authoritative Vietnam War photojournalism book, The Vietnam War: The Stories and The Photographs.

7 thoughts on “Burst of Joy

  1. One of the best pictures I ever came across. I wish the whole family joys forever.

    And may Ms. Loretta rest in peace (read on net that she passed away in 2010)

  2. This photo is indeed iconic. When I first saw it years ago, I didn’t know anything about the family. All I could focus on was the pure joy in the young teenager reuniting with her dad after so many years. I did notice a kind of reluctance from the wife and the younger kids however. The younger ones obviously didn’t remember him and the wife was letting her older ones have the moment is how I read it.

    I’ve come to know that the wife had actually abandoned the marriage within a year of her husband’s disappearance. She apparently had 3 marriage proposals during the 5-6 years he was held in captivity and lived a lie without even the dignity and integrity to be honest with her children. They were divorced within a year of his return. This type of thing was not uncommon.

    I know of another similar story. The POW was released from Hanoi after 7 1/2 years in captivity & upon landing at Clark AFB in the Philippines received notice from the Chaplain that his wife wanted him to wait a few days before returning stateside because she was infirm in the hospital with a broken leg she had sustained on a skiing trip with her boyfriend. She also asked that he not come to their house when he arrived because it might make her boyfriend feel uncomfortable. Sheesh. What a homecoming.

    • You have no idea what you are talking about. It is beyond appalling that you feel entitled enough to make untrue statements regarding other people and their lives. “The younger ones obviously didn’t remember him” – I will not speak on behalf of Maj. Stirm, Dr. Stirm, or Mrs. Cindy Pierson, but I guarantee you all 3 of the “younger ones” knew damn well who their father was and had nothing but vivid loving memories, as strong as Lorrie did.

      As for your “theory” on Loretta, you could not be further from the truth and I find it hard to verbalize a response to that, so I will leave it at: You sir, have no f***ing clue what you are talking about.

  3. I came home from NAM in 1969 June, having been chief of surgery at the 24th Evac Hospital in Long Binh…in III Corps…where it was 200 KIA and 800 Wounded in action every month. I personally did 1,800 operations in that one year…and lost seven. I was permanently “wounded” and came home to a wife and family and community that had no clue what human devastation I had seen, much less how irrelevant “mowing the lawn” and “take off those bloody fatigues you are wearing” would later mean. I became a leading surgeon in Monterey, CA, a teacher, mentor, professor and friend to all my patients, rich and poor, but VietNam never left me. I value LIFE, KIDS, PETS, BLUE SKIES, CRASHING WAVES, QUIET NIGHTS, NEW SNOW and the love a wife that interestingly, saw combat as an ARMY NURSE in Nam…and understands the now quiet demons of a totally unnecessary war that once haunted me. BURST OF JOY is my story too. I understand.

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