‘That day changed my life forever’: Burned by napalm in Vietnam, woman shares her story of healing

A photo of the award-winning picture taken by AP photographer Nick Ut in 1974 is projected on a screen behind Kim Phuc during her time speaking to the congregation of Open Door Baptist Church in Lynnwood on June 23. (Photos by Doug Petrowski)

June 8, 1972, will be a day that Kim Phuc remembers for the rest of her life. And thanks to an iconic photograph, many around the world know of her and the horror she experienced as a young girl in her small village in Vietnam.

Kim told her story of tragedy, pain and miraculous healing — physical, emotional and spiritual — in a special service at Open Door Baptist Church in Lynnwood on Sunday.

Kim, known worldwide as Napalm Girl, was 9 when AP photographer Nick Ut captured an image of her and other children fleeing Trang Bang, Vietnam. Ut was standing outside the North Vietnamese-occupied village when it was targeted with four napalm bombs in a South Vietnamese-led airstrike. The children, along with other civilians, had been trying to escape the village when it was hit.

“I was in the middle; I should have died,” Kim told the packed church sanctuary on Sunday. “Napalm gasoline burns at 1200 degrees Celsius — unbelievable! My skin should burn off my body, but you can see it – my hands and my face are beautiful, right?”

Kim, now a speaker and author, believes her recovery from that incident and the many hardships that followed is a story that many can be blessed and inspired by.

Kim Phuc, known around the world as Napalm Girl, stands at the podium of Open Door Baptist Church.

“That blessing is not only just for me but for all of you too because I know that when you first saw my picture you were wondering what happened to that little girl, right? And is she still alive? Yes she is still alive. What a living miracle.”

The napalm had burned nearly half of Kim’s body. Doctors, giving her little hope of survival, had her taken to the hospital morgue when she was later found by her parents. Over the next few years Kim received 17 surgeries, including reconstructive surgery in West Germany, in 1982 — 12 years after the bombing.

While surviving the airstrike, the years of pain and suffering from the burns and injuries left more than just physical scars, Kim said; the emotional damage was haunting. “Because of my scars on my back and my left arm I didn’t feel pretty,” Kim said. “Oh how I envied my girlfriends who could wear short sleeve blouses. I was certain no boy would ever love me or marry me and that I would never have a normal life.”

Kim found some comfort and inspiration from those who cared for her during her many years of recovery. “I dreamed of becoming a doctor — and do you know why? Because I stayed in the hospital for a long time,” she recalled. “I loved my doctors and they were my heroes. They would inspire me.”

As a young adult, Kim applied for and was accepted to a medical school in Saigon, but with the Vietnam war now over and Communist authorities in control, she was also forced to be involved in propaganda efforts of the Vietnamese government.

“They thought I should be a war symbol for the state,” Kim explained. “I still remember, the officer would come and pick me up from my school to do a lot of interviews with the foreign press. So they tried to control me and eventually they cut short my studies.”

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

The emotional toll of being forced to speak for the Communist government was overpowering, Kim said.

“So this was a low, low point in my life,” she said. “My life just became as a bird in a cage. That’s it. And I kept asking, ‘why me; why do I have to suffer that much.’ I felt so bitter and angry. I use to curse those who caused my suffering to death. And I wanted them to suffer even more than me.”

“Honestly, for a while, I had a lot of anger here,” Kim continued. “But I knew I could not live like that. I had to change it or my heart would die from hatred. For years I search for answers. How would I find peace and move on, please?”

At age 19, Kim was in a Saigon library and found some books about religion, including a New Testament. She said reading the Gospels and their messages of forgiveness were illuminating.

“I finally found my answer. At 19, I became a Christian,” she said.

Kim Phuc laughs while telling a humorous anecdote from her life story during her appearance at Open Door Baptist Church in Lynnwood.

Later, due to her submission to Communist officials, Kim was given the opportunity to go to Cuba and return to medical studies. There she met another Vietnamese studying medicine and they eventually wed, with Communist officials allowing them to take a honeymoon in Moscow — something she now finds humorous. “Can you imagine, honeymoon in Moscow,” she said with a giggle.

“That honeymoon was our opportunity,” Kim said. “On the way back to Cuba, the airplane was scheduled to stop in Gander, Newfoundland, for one hour to refuel. Oh Canada; all I knew was Canada was a free country with a pretty flag.”

“That hour seemed to last a lifetime because during it I made a life-changing decision to defect.”

Canadian officials welcomed Kim and husband Bui Huy Toan into the country, but with no money or possessions and not knowing the language or culture, Kim called her early life there “a challenge.” But she said it paled in comparison to the emotional burden she still carried from the war and her forced servitude to Vietnamese authorities.

“The biggest challenge was learning how to forgive those who caused my suffering,” Kim said. “I remember how I felt when I first read the verses in Luke 6:27-28: Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you. Bless them that curse you and pray for them.”

“Do you know how difficult that is?” Kim continued. “I didn’t know how to do it; it seemed impossible for me. I have a lot of scars … I had endured so much pain, emotionally and physically.”

“I had to pray a lot, over and over and over. I didn’t wake up one day and just say, ‘yeah, I forgive.’ But I learned that in order to be free, I had to learn to forgive.”

“I ask him to please help me to learn how to forgive, to learn how to love my enemies,” Kim concluded. “The more I prayed for my enemies, the softer my heart became. Praise the Lord. I felt forgiveness completely in my heart. It did not happen overnight; it took a long time, but when I experienced real forgiveness my heart was set free.”

Kim and her husband live outside of Toronto, have two sons and one grandchild. In 1997 she was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and now speaks throughout the world. Her recently-published autobiography, Fire Road, tells her story. The Kim Foundation International, a non-profit organization co-founded by Kim, is active in Africa, India and Vietnam reaching children with physical and physiological needs.

— By Doug Petrowski

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