The photo, rated by some as the photo of the 20th century, was taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut. It won a Pulitzer Prize and at once became the iconic image of the Vietnam War. Sunday, February 21, Kim Phuc, “the girl in the picture,” stood three times at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and told her story of pain and redemption.
Kim narrated her enjoyable life as a child with a loving family, a mother who operated a well-known restaurant in the village of Trang Bang and her love of school. Life changed when soldiers began descending on their village, knocking on doors and carrying out inspections.
June 8, 1972, the North Vietnamese were entrenched outside of Kim’s village (I believe to the north) when an air-strike, coordinated by the American Air Force, was called in. The adults and some of the children in the village had taken refuge in a nearby pagoda awaiting the end of the bombing. For fear of all the children being in the same place, Kim, an aunt and her grandmother with others of her young relatives were sent out, walking through a cemetery and along a road.
Video shot by a British film crew shows a low flying aircraft, on the wrong side of the village, dispensing four napalm bombs, which upon landing, created a wall of fire which engulfed Kim and her fleeing family. The British journalist recounted in a documentary about Kim’s life that one young child was carried by them with what appeared to be tattered clothing hanging from his body.
It was his skin.
One young cousin was killed immediately while another died within days; Kim’s clothes were burned from her body and her upper left arm was severely burned. She later learned that napalm burns at greater than 800 degrees Celsius. Napalm also burns beneath the skin so the water poured on her by assisting soldiers increased her pain so drastically that she passed out. She was taken to the hospital by Nick Ut the photographer who had moments before snapped her photo.
She endured 17 surgeries over the years the last one being in 1984. She ultimately married and defected to Canada with her new husband in the midst of a re-fueling stop in Newfoundland on their honeymoon. They, their two sons and her parents now call Toronto home.
Phuc also shared how she grew to forgive those who had caused her so much pain. After becoming a Christian in 1982 she noted, “My situation did not change one bit, but my heart was filled with joy!” Her life verse became Psalm 118:17, “I shall not die, but live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.”
After reading Luke 6:27, 28 (“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”) she added all the people who had caused her pain to her prayer list. When her church in Saigon was closed by the communist government, she read her Bible and prayed daily.
Phuc,who speaks so softly one could not hope to hear her without a mic even from just a few feet away, still speaks with vitality, humor and purpose.
Kim Phuc is now an advocate for child victims of war, but had to reconcile her own life before being able to intercede for others. As she put it, “Before we can give hope we have to learn to forgive.”