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On This Day in History: March 17
Burst of Joy
The photo was dubbed “Burst of Joy” and won a Pulitzer Prize. It portrays a man seeing his family for the first time in over five years after being a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. A teenage girl runs toward her father, arms wide in an anticipated embrace, her three siblings and mother following close behind. Everyone is smiling. But there is a story behind the photo that sucks. The man’s wife, Loretta, had been sleeping around and wanted to leave him.
--On This Day in History Shit Went Down: March 17, 1973--
Conflicting emotions on this one. Lt. Colonel Robert Stirm was a fighter pilot leading a bombing run over Hanoi in 1967. Many civilians died in those bombing runs. He was shot down and spent five-and-a-half years in Hell, suffering torture, mock executions, starvation, and sickness.
War isn’t “complicated.” It’s fucked up. The photo elicits an emotional response, but put this alternative image in your brain: A burned North Vietnamese child, lying in a hospital bed, learning their entire family has been incinerated by American bombs. Who do they think are the “good guys” in all this? On the other side, we have a man who answered the call of duty from corrupt politicians. He did his job and suffered greatly for it. As I said, war is fucked up.
While a POW in horrific conditions, the only thing that kept Stirm alive was hope he would one day see his family again. Then, three days before he was scheduled to arrive home, he was given a “Dear John” letter from his wife. Within a year of him being a prisoner, she began seeing other men (and hiding it from her children). Three of those men had proposed marriage to her.
The emotions of Robert Stirm in the photo were bittersweet. He’d finally escaped Hell, and his children were overjoyed to see him, but he also knew that the woman he loved wanted a divorce. Yet there is missing context. Robert’s family had no idea he was alive. When she wrote the letter, she’d begun a new relationship and, believing her husband dead, sent it as a form of closure. She never thought he’d read it. When her husband did return, she broke off her relationship and tried to make things work with Robert, but they divorced a year later.
The divorce court ordered that Loretta be awarded 43% of Robert’s military retirement pay; it’s not like she could be left destitute to raise their two youngest children (the two oldest went to live with their father). It all just sucks and is the type of thing hate groups that style themselves “men’s rights activists” latch on to when proclaiming “feminism is cancer” and there is a “war on men.” Fuck those guys.
Anyway, all four of the children have a copy of the photo hanging in their homes, but not Robert. When asked why, he referred to his ex-wife and said, “Because of her.”
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