Subject of famous Vietnam photo speaks to Sewickley Academy students

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 2:19 p.m.

Kim Phuc said her hardest life lesson has been learning how to forgive.

Phuc, 50, visited Sewickley Academy last week as part of the school's Sewickley Series to talk about the famous photograph taken of her as a 9-year-old running nude down a road in South Vietnam with her skin burning from napalm and how she overcame anger and bitterness.

Phuc told middle school students, faculty and guests that her childhood, up to that day, was a normal one.

“Before the war, I was never afraid,” she said.

But everything changed on June 8, 1972, when South Vietnamese planes dropped a napalm bomb on the village of Trang Bang after mistaking civilians for enemy soldiers. Phuc was severely burned. Two relatives and two other villagers were killed in the attack.

“I saw the fire on my body, and I felt so scared. And I kept running and running and crying,” she said. Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer who captured the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of Phuc and others fleeing the area, took the injured children to a hospital in Saigon.

Since her burns were so severe, Phuc's prognosis was grim. She spent 14 months in the hospital and endured 17 operations. The pain was so unbearable, she said, that she would pass out each time she was given a burn bath to remove the dead skin from her body.

“I almost died many times, but I didn't die. Somehow I survived. Inside of me was a strong little girl,” she said.

After her long recovery, she wished for a normal life and dreamed of becoming a doctor to help other people like her. She studied hard and, at 19, was accepted into medical school. However, a short time later, she was pulled from her studies by the Vietnam government and used as a propaganda tool — forced to do interviews with foreign reporters.

“I became a victim all over again,” she said. “I wanted to live a peaceful life, but in my country, we were not free to make our own choices.”

“For a while, I had a lot of anger,” she said. She remembers how she felt reading the Bible verse about loving your enemies. She thought it was impossible. She asked God to help her learn to forgive.

Eventually, Phuc was permitted to continue her studies at the University of Havana in Cuba. There, she would meet her husband and the father of her two children. Before that, she said, she thought her extensive scars, which cover her right arm and back, would prevent her from having a family.

Phuc and her family live in Toronto. She travels around the world as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization Goodwill Ambassador for the Culture of Peace and in 1997 established the Kim Phuc Foundation, with the mission of providing child victims of war with medical and psychological aid.

Today, Phuc said, she still has some pain. When she's sick, or when the weather changes, it comes back. Yet, despite all she has endured, she can be grateful for how it has shaped her.

“It had made me very strong inside, and I thank God for that,” she said.

Kristina Serafini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1405 or

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