When Lt. Colonel Robert L. Stirm landed at Travis Air Force Base in California a year ago, after five-and-a-half years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, it seemed like a POW’s dream coming true. Racing across the tarmac, laughing and crying as they ran to embrace him, were his attractive wife Loretta and their four exuberant children. But the happiness was shortlived. Stirm already knew that his wife of 18 years had filed under California’s no-fault divorce law, and a few weeks later they parted for good.
Although many POWs have adjusted remarkably in the year since their release by Hanoi, others have seen the dreams that sustained them in prison smashed by home front realities. Returning to their families after too long an absence, they found a world that had gone on without them. Of 566 U.S. prisoners repatriated during last year’s POW exchange, the Pentagon confirms that two have committed suicide, a third man has been confined to a mental hospital and about 75 have been divorced from their wives. Unofficial sources, however, place the divorce figure shockingly higher, claiming that many more cases are now in litigation.
For Bob Stirm, much of the past year has been spent fighting the divorce he could not fully accept. He has taken a townhouse near San Francisco, where he lives with his mother—recently divorced herself—and his two older children, 16-year-old Lorrie and 15-year-old Bo. The younger two, Cindy, 11, and Roger, 13, usually visit on weekends.
Assigned by the Air Force to a 10-month training program at nearby Lockheed, Stirm is an avid skier, tanned and trim, with no trace of a prison pallor. But confinement has left its reminders. While imprisoned he lost the enamel on his teeth, so that any hot or cold food gives him pain. Because of this he is never really hungry anymore. Ominously he has been told that former POWs in his age group—Stirm is now 40—are showing signs of bone decomposition as a result of their long deprivation.
Embittered by his wife’s action against him, Stirm chose to fight for custody of all his children and resist her demands for her share of the community property. “Loretta got $136,000 in government allotments while I was in Vietnam,” he told the court, “and I want a share of it. I haven’t shared in any community in six-and-a-half years. I was sitting in that rotten, stinking hole.” Loretta, 38, asked for 50% of virtually everything Stirm owned, including half the $9,830 POW allotment granted him by the U.S. government to compensate for time spent in confinement and half his Air Force pension. “All those dreams I had in prison were nothing but dust,” Stirm complained angrily. “I’ve been taken to the cleaners.”
Stung by his wife’s lawsuit, he countered with evidence that she’d been unfaithful. “Mrs. Stirm was…human,” her lawyer admitted. “It was not unusual for POW wives to become emotionally involved with others during the absence of their husbands.”
Last month came the judge’s decision, and for Stirm it was a galling defeat. His wife was awarded custody of Cindy and Roger, plus the Stirms’ $24,000 suburban home and their car. Stirm must pay $300 a month child support. In addition, he was ordered to hand over 40% of whatever pension he will eventually receive. Although the court denied Loretta a share of his POW allotment and refused any alimony claim, it ruled nothing could be done about the $136,000 she’d already received. She was ordered to pay back $1,500 she’d spent traveling with other men, but Stirm was hardly mollified. “I’d like someone—maybe the federal government—to step forward and grant me my constitutional rights,” he declared bitterly. “My service was honorable; hers was not.”