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1972 Vietnam napalm victim shares tale of healing

| Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, 12:18 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Kim Phuc, the South Vietnamese child who became famous after a photographer documented her running down the road with her skin on fire from a napalm strike in 1972, visits Sewickley Academy as part of its speaker series on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Kim Phuc, the South Vietnamese child who became famous after a photographer documented her running down the road with her skin on fire from a napalm strike in 1972, visits Sewickley Academy as part of its speaker series Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. She defected from Vietnam to Canada in 1992 and now lives in Toronto.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Kim Phuc, the South Vietnamese child who became famous after a photographer documented her running down the road with her skin on fire from a napalm strike in 1972, visits Sewickley Academy as part of its speaker series Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. She defected from Vietnam to Canada in 1992 and now lives in Toronto.

Kim Phuc was supposed to be a propaganda tool.

That's what the government of Vietnam had in mind for the woman made famous when photographed as a naked child with skin burning from a U.S. napalm attack during the Vietnam War, she says.

When she recovered from the burns that almost killed her on June 8, 1972, she pledged to spread a message of peace and forgiveness.

Kim, 50, now a Canadian citizen and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador living near Toronto with her husband and two sons, spoke to students at Sewickley Academy on Thursday, many of them born three decades after the attack on her village in South Vietnam.

Wearing a royal blue ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese full-length caftan, she held students transfixed as she told the story behind the photo that touched the world.

She and her family, refugees in a Cao Dai temple, were fleeing at the urging of soldiers when the fiery gelled petroleum, used to clear vegetation, rained down.

Associated Press photographer Nick Ut won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo he snapped of the child whose clothing had been burned away.

“He won my heart,” she said. “The photographer put down his camera and rushed me to the nearest hospital. It saved my life.”

Her recovery required 17 surgeries. Even today, when the weather changes, Kim said, the pain returns. She turns to massage or acupuncture.

Kim's scars are not apparent, but students gasped when she pulled up a sleeve to show the ridged flesh on her left arm.

She wanted to become a doctor, but when she was 19, the Vietnamese government discovered she was the girl in the picture and decreed that she should become a symbol of the war.

“I became a victim all over again,” she said.

Around that time, she converted to Christianity. Eventually, she was permitted to attend college in Cuba at the University of Havana, where she met another Vietnamese student who became her husband. They defected to Canada in 1992 during a layover at an airport in Gander, Newfoundland, after a honeymoon trip to Moscow.

Learning to live in another country was challenging, but learning to forgive those who caused her pain was more difficult. Prayer freed her, Kim told the students.

“It was the hardest work of my life,” she said.

That work came full circle in 1996 when she spoke about healing through forgiveness during a Veterans Day service at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. She met a U.S. veteran who told her that he called in the attack that injured her.

“After I forgave John, we became true friends,” she said. “I found that forgiveness is more powerful than any weapon of war.”

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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