There is a special place in Hell for those who cheat on their spouses, and an even more exclusive club for those who cheat on spouses serving in the military.
However, one can only fathom what exclusive and vile corner of Hell awaits those who cheat on spouses held in captivity by an enemy during wartime.
Such was the unfortunate case for Bob Stirn, a Vietnam veteran whose return from being a POW for over half a decade was captured in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, “Burst of Joy.”
In the photo, then-Lieutenant Colonel Robert Stirm was reunited with his family after years of captivity and torture in the “Hanoi Hilton,” a notorious prison camp in North Vietnam.
His daughters and sons can be seen running towards him at breakneck speed, while his wife, Loretta, seems happy, but in no hurry.
The photo is in the house of every member of the family, except Stirm.
“I have several copies of the photo,” he said in 1993, “but I don’t display it in the house. Because of her.”
Despite being happy to see his children, Stirm had recieved a letter from Loretta on the day of his release from the POW camp, claiming she wanted a divorce.
Loretta’s mindset was nothing new. The two had previously divorced when they were younger, but remarried shortly after. They had four children together, and had been through a lot of good and bad, respectively.
Despite all of this, however, Loretta made up her mind not long after Stirm’s stricken F-105 Thunderchief fell from the sky, bidding him goodbye as he ejected and parachuted into enemy hands.
“In some ways, it’s hypocritical, because my former wife had abandoned the marriage within a year or so after I was shot down,” he told the LA Times. “She did not even have the honor and integrity to be honest with the kids. She lived a lie.”
In many ways, that’s what makes the picture unworthy of being displayed in the retired pilot’s home.
“This picture does not show the realities that she had accepted proposals of marriage from three different men,” he said. “It portrays (that) everybody there was happy to see me.”
But the divorce was inevitable- and public.
“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.
Adding insult to injury, the divorce became a rather publicized affair, with Loretta getting custody of two of their kids, the family home and nearly 43 percent of Stirm’s retirement pay.
The matter was not lost on the judge, who had noted Loretta’s infidelity while Stirm was enduring torture, isolation and fake executions.
“The momentum to stay alive for my family’s sake was very strong, because I had four neat children and what I believed to be a neat wife that I wanted to get back to see,” he said. “That’s a strong incentive.”
Loretta would later marry an attorney.
After his promotion to Colonel and retirement in 1977, Stirm went to work for a steel company and as a corporate pilot. He worked well past the age of 60, and is currently 86 years of age.
“It’s not fair. It’s not just,” Stirm said. “I’m the one that lives with all the aches and pains from my imprisonment, but she continues to get paid.”
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