Healing and Life Lessons of Napalm Survivor Kim Phuc
SOUTH VIETNAM. Trang Bang. June 8, 1972. South Vietnamese forces follow after frightened children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, centre, as they run down a road, after a South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped flaming napalm on its own troops and civilians. The terrified girl had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing.
This photo, taken by Vietnamese-born war photographer Nick Ut, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and the World Press Photo of the Year award in 1972.
More than 40 years later she can hide the scars beneath long sleeves, but that betrays the pain she has endured since that errant napalm strike in 1972. While a photographer’s image froze that moment in time, life didn’t stand still for the little girl, and now Kim Phuc tells her story around the world to benefit other child victims of war.
Skin peels off Kim’s body.
Kim Phuc shows the burn scars on her back and arms after laser treatments and more than 40 years after napalm was dropped on her village. Photograph: Nick Ut/AP
At conferences, Phuc says her experience of war changed her life. “I owe my values and who I am today to that experience. Sometimes a terrible thing can happen, but if we are very lucky, we can learn from our experience, and it can even make us stronger.”
She grew up in a tiny village in South Vietnam, in a nice house with a big yard, playing with friends and riding her bicycle. “I felt safe, and loved. Before the war, I was never afraid.”
When a plane dropped four napalm bombs on the village, Phuc was badly burned. As she and her relatives fled, a group of journalists on the road outside the village captured the horror on film. They also tried to help: Ut himself drove Phuc to the nearest hospital.
Each time Phuc recounts her life at conferences, she describes it as a series of lessons learned.
The first lesson, she says, is to be strong in the face of pain.
“Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine. Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius.”
Phuc had third-degree burns to half her body and was not expected to live. But she survived, enduring a 14-month hospital stay and 17 operations.
The second lesson, she says, is the importance of love. The compassion of doctors and nurses and the love of her family helped her recover. She also discovered that love can be tough. She was reluctant to do the daily exercises she needed to do because they were so painful, but her mother insisted. “I got better later on. I’m so grateful to my mother.”
While she spent years doing those painful exercises to preserve her range of motion, her left arm still doesn’t extend as far as her right arm, and her desire to learn how to play the piano has been thwarted by stiffness in her left hand. Tasks as simple as carrying her purse on her left side are too difficult.
“As a child, I loved to climb on the tree, like a monkey,” picking the best guavas, tossing them down to her friends, Phuc says.
“After I got burned, I never climbed on the tree anymore and I never played the game like before with my friends. It’s really difficult. I was really, really disabled.”
Phuc in hospital in 1972. She was nine when napalm was dropped on her village.
Phuc says that after the war, her family’s life was “very different and very difficult. “Our house was destroyed completely,” she said. “You have everything one day and suddenly you have nothing. I learned that you can lose everything, but if you have family love and God’s love, you have everything.”
Education has always been important to her. As a small child, she loved going to school. When she returned home after treatment, the first thing she wanted to do was go back to school. She dreamt of becoming a doctor, and studied hard despite the obstacles. But first because of the Vietnam War, and later because of the war with neighbouring Cambodia, life was dangerous and it was often difficult to attend school.
Another lesson Phuc learned, she says, was the importance of freedom. “I always had minders – people from the government whose job was to watch me every moment.”
When she was 19 years old, the Vietnamese government chose Phuc as their poster child, and would pick her up after school to give interviews to foreign journalists.
She begged to be allowed to go somewhere quiet for study, and was sent to Cuba, where she spent the next six years, although she eventually had to leave medical school because of her health. She began to dream of escaping. In 1992, Phuc married a North Vietnamese student at the University of Havana. The couple went to Moscow for their honeymoon, and on their return journey, when the plane stopped to refuel in Canada, they had just one hour to make their escape. The only belongings she had with her were a camera and a purse.
“Sometimes in our lives we need to take a risk,” she says.
Kim Phuc, today and on June 8, 1972.
The most difficult lesson of all was how to forgive. “It wasn’t easy. I didn’t just say one day ‘I forgive’. It took many doctors and operations to repair my body, but… it took the power of God’s love to heal my heart.”
In 1996, during a Veterans Day ceremony in Washington, D.C., Phuc met a former pilot who helped coordinate the airstrike on her village. The two embraced and she told him she forgave him. They have stayed in touch.
“Having known war, I know the value of peace. Having lived under government control, I know the value of freedom. Having lived with pain, I know the healing power of love. Having lived with poverty, losing everything and having nothing, I know how to value what I have. And the most important thing of all, having lived in hatred, terror, and corruption, I know the power of faith and forgiveness.”
She is grateful to have learned so many lessons.
In 1997, Phuc established the Kim Foundation, a charitable organization to help child victims of war.
“A photographer happened to be on that road that day. But I can never forget the thousands of innocent children who didn’t have their picture taken and didn’t get help. These are the children I want to help.”
The last lesson has to do with the famous picture. “For many years, the picture controlled me. Then I realised that, if I could not escape the picture, I could work with it for peace. Now I travel, following my picture around the world as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO. My picture is a symbol of war, but my life is a symbol of love, hope, and forgiveness.”
Kim Phuc with her eldest son, Thomas, in 1995.
Now, more than 40 years after Kim Phuc was photographed, treatment in the US will also help ease the physical pain she still endures. Triggered by scarred nerve endings that misfire at random, her pain is especially acute when the seasons change in Canada.
Phuc says her Christian faith brought her physical and emotional peace “in the midst of hatred, bitterness, pain, loss, hopelessness,” when the pain seemed insurmountable.
“No operation, no medication, no doctor can help to heal my heart. The only one is a miracle, [that] God loves me,” she says. “I just wish one day I am free from pain.”
Now, she has a new chance to heal – a prospect she once thought possible only in a life after death.
“So many years I thought that I have no more scars, no more pain when I’m in heaven. But now – heaven on earth for me!” Phuc said upon her arrival in Miami to see a dermatologist who specialises in laser treatments for burn patients.
In September 2015, Phuc, 52, began a series of laser treatments that her doctor says will smooth and soften the pale, thick scar tissue that ripples from her left hand up her arm, up her neck to her hairline and down almost all of her back. Even more important to Phuc, the treatments also will relieve the deep aches and pains that plague her to this day.
Compared to the other surgeries and skin grafts when she was younger, the lasers were easier to take.
“This was so light, just so easy,” she said after her first session. “Maybe it takes a year. But I am really excited – and thankful.”
[Mix of several press articles]
Kim Phuc pictured in 2012 with Nick Ut, the photographer who made her childhood image famous. Photograph: Jae C. Hong/AP
„You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed for twelve hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ‘em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know, that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smells like… victory.“