Kim Phuc: Life after Napalm

The woman in this photograph is Kim Phuc. The name may not sound familiar; but when you see the iconic photograph from her childhood, you will remember her. It can be very difficult to find forgiveness when you have suffered a terrible tragedy. Kim Phuc was only nine years old when napalm was dropped in Vietnam. Phuc has told the Dispatch that it took a long time for the “black coffee cup” that was in her heart to dissipate. But, she prayed and every day, it came a little clearer.

“One day, there was no more coffee left. … My cup was empty,” she told a crowd gathered last night at the Columbus Country Club on the East Side. “God … he helped me to refill it with light, peace, joy, compassion, understanding, love, patience and forgiveness. “I’m so thankful for that, and that is heaven on Earth for me.”

Now at 50, Phuc spoke of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph that made her the child-symbol of the Vietnam War.

The image was taken by Associated Press photographer, Huyng Cong “Nick” Ut in 1972. The photograph shows Phuc running down the street naked because she tore off her burning clothing. She screamed for safety after being burned in a South Vietnamese airstrike in the village of Trang Bang where she and her family lived.

“Some people say it helped end the war,” she said. “I know it changed my life forever.” She shared her journey at a Wealth Summit. The summit was a gathering of professionals sponsored by the Joseph Group Inc. investment-advisory firm and the Kephart Fisher law firm. Matt Palmer, the president of the Joseph Group, said the firms wanted to share Phuc’s powerful message of forgiveness. “What a beautiful way, on Valentine’s Day, to think about love,” he said, “to be listening to someone who has learned how to love through forgiveness.”

After she was burned, Phuc spent 14 months in the hospital and she endured 17 operations over the next twelve years. In 1992, shortly after she married, she relocated to Canada where she now calls home. She had said that she only had her purse and a camera when she and her husband decided to stay in Canada during a layover when they were concluding their honeymoon in Moscow to Havana. Learning to love God was one of the things that helped her forgive. She became a Christian in 1982. Since then, she has learned many lessons in life—from the importance of love, education, and more importantly, freedom.

“To learn how to forgive the ones who caused my suffering was a huge challenge,” she said. “I started to pray, and I prayed a lot. I didn’t wake up one day and just say, ‘Yes, I forgive.’ … It wasn’t easy at all.” All throughout the years, the Vietnamese government made her to do interviews with foreign reporters. She had to give up her dream of becoming a doctor when her health problems made her leave medical school. She appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and in several documentaries. She has shared her story with people all over the world. She founded the Kim Foundation International, which seeks to help children who were victims of war.

She said the last lesson she learned was how to use the 1972 photo of her for good, after wanting to hide from it for so long. She tried to lead a quiet life in Canada, but a photojournalist found her and her photograph began appearing in newspapers all over the world. “It seemed to me that picture did not want to let me go,” she said. “I realized that, if I could not escape from that picture, I could work with it for peace.

“It is a symbol of war, but my life is a symbol of love, hope and forgiveness.”

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE