The Story Behind an Iconic Vietnam War-Era Photo

By: (AP) Sitting in a station wagon at Travis Air Force Base in California, 15-year-old Lorrie Stirm felt that she was in a dream. It was March 17, 1973, and it had been six long years since she last had seen her father, Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm, an Air Force fighter pilot. He'd been shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and had been missing or imprisoned ever since.

She waited while he made a brief speech on behalf of himself and other POWs who had arrived from Vietnam as part of "Operation Homecoming."

The minutes crept by like hours, she recalls, and then, all at once, the car door opened. "I just wanted to get to Dad as fast as I could," she told Smithsonian magazine for the January issue. She tore down the runway toward him with open arms, her spirits -- and feet -- flying. Her mother, Loretta, and three younger siblings -- Robert Jr., Roger and Cindy -- were only steps behind.

"We didn't know if he would ever come home," Lorrie says. "That moment was all our prayers answered, all our wishes come true."

Standing with dozens of other journalists, Associated Press photographer Slava "Sal" Veder saw the sprinting family and started taking pictures. "You could feel the energy and the raw emotion in the air," he recalls.

Veder, then 46, rushed to a makeshift darkroom in a women's restroom on the base; he and his AP colleague Walt Zeboski developed the image that was sent out over the news service wires, published in newspapers, and later awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

It remains the quintessential homecoming photograph of the time. Lt. Col. Stirm, 39, who had endured gunshot wounds, torture, illness, starvation, and despair in North Vietnamese prison camps, is pictured in a crisp new uniform. With his back to the camera, Veder notes, he seems an everyman who represented all the troops in Vietnam who would return home to their families.

But there was more to the story. Three days before Stirm returned, a chaplain had handed him a Dear John letter.

"I can't help but feel ambivalent about it," Stirm now says of the photograph. "I was very pleased to see my children -- I loved them all and still do, and I know they had a difficult time -- but there was a lot to deal with."

The couple divorced within a year of his return. Loretta remarried in 1974 and lives in Texas with her husband. Robert retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1977 and worked as a corporate pilot and businessman. He married and was divorced again. Now 72 and retired, he lives in Foster City, Calif.

Robert Jr. is a dentist in Walnut Creek, Calif.; he and his wife have four children, the oldest of whom is a Marine. Roger, a major in the Air Force, lives outside Seattle. Cindy Pierson, a waitress, resides in Walnut Creek, Calif., with her husband and has a daughter in college. And Lorrie Stirm Kitching, now 47, is an executive administrator and mother of two sons. She lives in Mountain View, Calif., with her husband.

All four siblings display the photo in a place of honor, but their father can't bring himself to do so.

"We have this very nice picture of a very happy moment," Lorrie says, "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."


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