It’s an image that is hard to forget: a little Vietnamese girl, naked, burned by napalm, crying out and running down a road away from the bomb smoke. Nick Ut took that photo in 1972 after the bombing of the village of Trang Bang. It is forever a reminder of the suffering of war, and is an image that is indelibly linked with the collective American memory of the Vietnam War. (In fact, Ut won the Pulitzer Prize for the photo, and Oprah later dedicated a show to it, calling it “The Picture of the Century.”) But what became of that little girl, the one who put a face on the war for so many?
Last night we found out. Kim Phuc, now a married mother of two, Canadian citizen and Goodwill UNESCO Ambassador, spoke to a packed Stokes Auditorium, telling us her fascinating story. It begins with the horror of running from the explosion of four bombs and being so badly burned by napalm, which burns under the skin, that her clothing disintegrated and even the well-meaning soldier who tried to douse her with water only made things worse. Though the soft-spoken Phuc, whose name translates to “Golden Happiness,” stayed in the hospital for 14 months following the bombing of her town and later underwent 17 surgeries over the course of 12 years, her story is more than the tragedy caught on film that day. “I don’t want to talk about suffering,” she said warmly.
Instead, she detailed the most important lessons she’s learned over the course of her life so far. She learned to be strong through the pain, which she still suffers from to this day. She learned the importance of love and working together. She learned the value of education and freedom. She learned how to be patient. She learned how to forgive. And, most importantly, she said, she learned to take control of that famous picture.
Phuc, wearing a beatific smile for most of her talk, told the crowd about how much she wanted to study to be a doctor, to help others as she had been helped. She told of how the Vietnamese government curtailed that dream as they tried to use “the Girl in the Picture” for their own political purposes, trotting her out in front of the foreign press and assigning someone to watch her 24-hours a day when she was in a German hospital undergoing surgery. She eventually was able to go to the University of Havana, where she studied English and Spanish and met her husband.
Her story then became a Cold War suspense thriller, as she detailed her defection to Canada during a stopover in Newfoundland to refuel on her way back to Cuba from a honeymoon in Moscow. Defecting in the Canadian airport, all she was able to take with her to her new life was a camera bag (which she showed during her talk) and her purse. The rest of her and her husband’s luggage returned to Cuba without them. “We tell our children, ‘Mommy and Daddy had nothing, but we had each other, we had freedom, so we had everything,'” she told the audience.
In 1982, she converted to Christianity, and credits her new faith with teaching her forgiveness. “The most difficult lesson of all was learning how to forgive the ones who caused my suffering,” she said. “[But] in order to be free, I had to learn to forgive.” Perhaps the most moving moment of a speech filled with them was when Phuc showed a video that detailed her 1996 Memorial Day visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., where she met Captain John Plummer, a pilot who coordinated the air strike on her village and is now a minister. She forgave him, she says, and they became “best friends.”
Phuc now runs a foundation that bears her name. It works to help children around the world, especially in war-torn regions. “For a long time,” she said, “I felt so sorry for myself. … ‘Why me?’ I thought. ‘Why [do] I have to suffer like that. Because of the scars I thought I would never have a boyfriend, never get married, never have a baby. But I was so wrong.” Her sons are 16 and 14; she is still married to the man who defected to Canada with her in 1992; and her parents have even emigrated to live with her family in Canada.
To close the evening, Phuc urged the assembled crowd to look at the horrifying photo that was taken when she was only nine years old in a different light. “When you see that little girl running up the road, don’t see her as crying out in pain and fear,” she said. “See her as crying out for peace.”