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.