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POW's Homecoming a Picture of Joy, but a Tapestry of Sadness : Vietnam: Photo of Bob Stirm and family won Pulitzer Prize and symbolized end of war. But to him, it evokes bitterness and betrayal.

July 04, 1993|GEORGE ESPER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FOSTER CITY, Calif. — 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 and his tall, attractive wife.

The joy of this reunion leaps out from the pages of history: Bob 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 American POWs in 1973.

Twenty years later, the picture is very different. In his home near San Francisco, a Vietnam history book was opened to that page of Stirm's life. He gazed at it.

"I have several copies of the photo," he said, "but I don't display it in the house."

Why? Stirm laughed. He pointed 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 said simply.

Stirm's anger and bitterness 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 said 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, now 60, it is cruel irony that so public a reunion had so hollow a core.

"It 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 of the photo, taken by Associated Press photographer Sal Veder.

"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 (that) everybody there was 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 is 35 today and 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.

Tears filled her eyes as she looked at the picture recently and saw herself at 15, about to leap into her father's arms, her feet shod in her first pair of high heels.

"It's a wonderful piece of history that we just happened to stumble into," she said. "It never would have gone away in my mind, but seeing that photo brings it all back again--just all the joy that was there."

"It was like Christmas," she said. "You knew Christmas was going to be great, but you didn't really know what was going to happen on Christmas, and that was just like when Dad came home. It was Christmas morning.

"You were racing down the stairs because we knew that there was a great present waiting for us. Everybody's face is genuinely happy."

Directly behind Lorrie in the photo is Cindy, the youngest child. She had turned 11 only two days before. She is wearing her favorite dress, a black jumper with a lacy pinafore, knee socks and Mary Janes.

Today, she is Cindy Pierson, the 31-year-old mother of an 8-year-old girl.

"It seems like another lifetime ago," she said. "I look at the picture and I don't see me. . . . I don't feel like I was really a part of it. I was so young. I didn't really know him when he left and I thought it would be wonderful to have a dad because all my friends had dads at their functions."

Robert Stirm Jr. is 34 now, the father of three sons and a dentist in Concord, Calif. His sister, Cindy, is his office manager.

In the photo, he is 14, partially blocked by Lorrie, a broad smile on his face.

"People recognized this photo," he said. "There's some sort of notoriety in that. But the photo per se didn't really change my life--it was my father coming home that changed my life."

Roger, 12 at the time, trails everyone, wearing a ski jacket. He followed in his father's footsteps; he is a captain in the Air Force based in Panama City.

And Loretta? She is married to an attorney and still lives in Foster City, but declined to be interviewed.

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