Subject of famous Vietnam photo speaks to Sewickley Academy students
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.