“Burst of Joy” won the Pulitzer Prize for photography because it depicted the joy of a reunion and the promise that a fractured nation could repair itself after the Vietnam War. But for one of the people in the picture, it was a bittersweet reunion. Lt. Col. Robert Stirm was shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 27, 1967. He spent the next six years in prison camps like the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. He withstood mock executions, torture, illness, and starvation. Seeing his family again kept him going. When the war was over, he was part of the first group of freed prisoners in “Operation Homecoming”. He and 19 others landed at Travis Air Force Base in California on March 17, 1973. Stirm was chosen to give a short speech to the crowd and then his family, who had been waiting in their car, sprinted across the tarmac.
Associated Press photographer Slave “Sal” Veder saw the opportunity and snapped a series of photos, the best became iconic. However, few people know the full story that make one of the smiles fake. Three days before the reunion, Stirm was handed a “Dear John” letter by a chaplain. Loretta, his wife of 18 years, wanted a divorce. Stirm learned that soon after he was captured his wife began cheating on him with several men. She received three marriage proposals! Within a year, they were divorced. He got custody of the two oldest kids. A judge ruled that he would have to give 43% of his retirement pay to his ex-wife. All the kids ended up hanging framed copies of the photo in their homes. Robert Stirm did not.