HOMECOMING HAUNTS EX-POW (Robert Stirm)

TO THE WORLD, the photo of his family greeting the Air Force officer after his return from a North Vietnamese camp symbolized the joy of a nation leaving an ugly war. To him, the scene was and remains a lie.

His older daughter is racing to meet him, arms outstretched, both feet off the ground, face split wide in a giddy smile. Close behind on the tarmac, also running, are his two grinning boys; his younger daughter; his tall, attractive wife.

The joy of this reunion leaps out from the pages of history: Robert Stirm, crisp in his Air Force uniform, was finally home after nearly 5 1/2 years in the prison camps of Vietnam.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning picture that captured that very personal, yet most public of moments symbolizes the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the bittersweet homecoming of 591 POWs in 1973.

Twenty years later, the picture is very different.

In his home near San Francisco, a Vietnam history book is opened to that page of Stirm’s life. He gazes at it.

“I have several copies of the photo,” he says, “but I don’t display it in the house.”

Why? Stirm laughs. He points to the picture, to the tall woman – just outpacing her younger son – dressed in a blue-and-white pleated skirt and blue sweater, sporting a large corsage.

“Because of her,” he says simply.

Stirm’s anger and bitterness these two decades later seem directed more at the woman in the famous black-and-white photo – his former wife, Loretta – than at the Vietnamese captors who tortured him.

He says he survived the torture, the mock executions, the dread-filled days and nights, so he could return to her, only to be handed a “Dear John” letter by a chaplain upon his release.

“I have changed drastically – forced into a situation where I finally had to grow up,” the letter read in part. “Bob, I feel sure that in your heart you know we can’t make it together – and it doesn’t make sense to be unhappy when you can do something about it. Life is too short.”

To Stirm, 60, it is cruel irony that so public a reunion had so hollow a core.

The photo, taken by Sal Veder of The Associated Press, “brought a lot of notoriety and publicity to me and, unfortunately, the legal situation that I was going to be faced with, and it was kind of unwelcomed,” Stirm said.

“In some ways, it’s hypocritical, because my former wife had abandoned the marriage within a year or so after I was shot down. And she did not even have the honor and integrity to be honest with the kids. She lived a lie. This picture does not show the realities that she had accepted proposals of marriage from three different men. . . . It portrays everybody there as happy to see me.”

But for Stirm’s older daughter, Lorrie Kitching, the photo captures a wonderful, pure moment in time. It brought basket after basket of fan mail and newspaper clippings from all over the world, she recalls.

Lorrie, 35, lives in San Mateo, Calif., with her second husband and an 11-year-old son from her first marriage. She works in the sales department of MediaSourcery, marketers of multimedia software.

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