The picture of a 9-year old Kim Phúc, naked and screaming as napalm burned the skin from her body, remains a potent symbol of senseless conflict.
Phúc on Oct. 23 told a group of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School students that while the Pulitzer-prize winning photo is forever burned into the historical record of the Vietnam War, her anger is not eternal.
She forgives the pilots who dropped napalm on her village, Trang Bang, in 1972. She forgives the communist government that forced her to drop out of medical school.
In time, she even grew to love the people who had wronged her.
“It sounds easy, but it wasn’t,” Phúc told students gathered in the school’s Fine Arts Building. “It was the hardest work of my life but I did it. If I can do it I believe all of you here can do it too, right?”
Phúc said becoming a Christian was the first step in her lifelong journey toward healing her heart.
She recalled her reaction to reading Luke: 27-8, which says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
“Do you know how difficult that is?” she said. “I didn’t know how to do it. It seemed impossible. I had a lot of scars. I had endured so much pain emotionally and physically. At first I thought, No Way Jose.”
Phúc, aware that the ‘No Way Jose’ expression would sound dated to her young audience, smiled and said, “You use that right?”
She recalled the events leading up to the moment Associated Press photographer Nick Ut snapped the photo. On June 8, the villagers were told to hide in the local temple. Phúc thought the temple, a sacred place, was safe. She was wrong.
“It was only when the soldiers yelled for us to run that we got really scared,” she said. “The airplanes were so loud and so close. We were running up the road. Most of the children ran first and suddenly there were bombs and explosions of gasoline. You know what happened. My clothes were burnt off by the fire and my skin was on fire. Someone began screaming, ‘Too hot! Too hot!’ That someone was me.”
Ut carried the 9-year-old girl to the local hospital. She was transferred to the children’s hospital. Staff there thought there was no hope of saving her, so they moved her to the morgue where she remained for three days. Her parents eventually found her and she spent the next 14 months in a burn clinic.
Phúc underwent 17 operations, but scars remain. She wears long sleeves, most of the time. After spending so much time surrounded by doctors, Phúc decided she’d become a doctor, too. She was accepted into medical school in Vietnam, but the government had different ideas about her future.
“They thought I should be a war symbol for the state,” Phúc said. “The officers would pick me up from the school to do a lot of interviews with the foreign press. They tried to control me and eventually they cut short my study. I wanted to be left alone, but they didn’t care what I wanted, so I became a victim all over again.”
She described the experience as a low-point in her life. She cursed the pilots. She cursed the propagandists. Phúc wanted them to suffer.
She began her transformation in 1982, when she found a Bible in a local library.
“From that moment I knew that God had a purpose for my life,” she said. “In 1986, the government gave me permission to go to Cuba to study.”
Phúc learned English while studying at the university in Havana. The Vietnamese government allowed her to study medicine in the communist nation, but remained overly-interested in how she spent her time.
It was there she met her husband, a fellow student. While on honeymoon, the couple defected to Canada.
“We were allowed to stay in Canada, but we had no money, no friends no knowledge of the culture,” Phúc. “We had nothing but faith.”
But faith was enough. Since moving to the West, Phúc has transformed herself into a new symbol for the power of forgiveness. She’s become a public speaker and created the Kim Phuc Foundation, a charity that helps children affected by war.
Like her physical recovery, her spiritual recovery took time. It was a necessary rehabilitation, she said.
“I didn’t just wake up one day and say yes I forgive, but I knew that in order to be free I had to learn to forgive,” she said.