By Lydia Beers
PLYMOUTH — This year, Kim Phuc saw the 40th anniversary of the simple black and white photo that made her famous.
Though no one knows her name, as Phuc says, “they know ‘the girl in the picture.’”
An Associated Press photographer captured 9-year-old Phuc naked and running from burning blasts of napalm covering her South Vietnam village during the Vietnam War in 1972.
“Before the war, I was never afraid,” said Phuc to an audience gathered to hear her speak Monday night, at Church of the Heartland in Plymouth. “I lived in a very nice house, I had everything. I felt safe and loved.”
But on June 8, 1972, four napalm bombs were dropped on Phuc’s quiet village, and the little girl found herself running for her life along with her other family members.
The napalm burned Phuc’s clothes off as she ran and covered her body with burns. She would be in a hospital for 14 months to recover.
“That picture helped change the way people saw the Vietnam War, and all wars,” said Phuc.
Her dream was to become a medical doctor, in part because of the care she received when recovering from the burns. But government in South Vietnam kept a close watch on her and prohibited her from attending school. Phuc explained that she was watched 24 hours a day by “minders” — assigned to her by her country’s government.
“Looking at you sitting here in this room, you don’t know what freedom you have,” said Phuc to her audience. “Please, don’t take it for granted.”
Phuc explained that she found herself full of rage, bitterness, and hatred because of the pain she had experienced as a child, and the pain she still felt every day — both physically and emotionally — from the bombing.
“I hated my life, and I hated everyone around me…because I wasn’t normal,” said Phuc. “I cursed those who had hurt me. I wanted them to suffer more than I had.”
Phuc remembers in a moment of desperation crying out to God and asking him if he was real. She spent days in the library, reading religious books, seeking a purpose for her life. It was during this time that she began to read a Bible.
One section in particular spoke to her, John 14:6 — “Jesus answered, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”
“My situation didn’t change one bit…but my heart was filled with joy,” said Phuc.
Eventually, Phuc was allowed to study in Cuba, where she met a man who would later become her husband, another Vietnamese student named Toan. They married and during a fuel stop on their flight back to Cuba from their honeymoon in Moscow, the couple defected to Canada.
“We had no money, no friends, and no knowledge of the country,” remembered Phuc.
Still, Phuc and her new husband built a life in Canada and would later have two sons, Thomas, now 18, and Stephen, now 15.
She added, “I learned to be positive. I stopped asking ‘Why me?’ I should have died. The napalm should have burned the skin off my body. I started to count all my blessings rather than complaining.”
Phuc described her heart as a cup of black coffee. As she began to forgive, she slowly recovered from her life of hatred and anger.
“Having known war, I know the value of peace,” said Phuc. “Having known government control, I know the value of freedom…most of all, I know the power of learning to forgive. Each of us can learn to forgive, but we must begin with ourselves.”
Phuc told a story of meeting one of the pilots involved in the air strike that destroyed her village. The man had been tortured by Phuc’s picture for many years and was overcome to finally meet Phuc and learn that she had forgiven him.
After trying to escape her association with the 1972 photo for many years, Phuc decided that she had a powerful and unique platform to work for peace. She began to travel to speak on her experiences about 15 years ago.
“I realized that if I could not escape that picture, I could work with it…I accepted it as a powerful gift,” said Phuc.
She added, “I want to change the way you look at that picture…instead of seeing the little girl crying from fear and pain, see her as crying out for peace.”
Phuc said that her goal in traveling and speaking is to encourage people.
“I want people to know what happened to that little girl, and know that by the grace of God she learned a lot of lessons,” said Phuc. “I want people to see that in the world, with so much hurt and hatred, no one can heal their hearts but Jesus.”
Phuc has formed the Kim Foundation International, and works to help child victims of war all over the world. To learn more about the foundation, visit www.kimfoundation.com .