Vietnam War ‘Napalm Girl’ Speaks on Reconciliation
Issue   |   Wed, 05/04/2016 - 00:52

Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the subject of the famous “napalm girl” photograph from the Vietnam War, spoke to students, staff, faculty and members of the community in the Cole Assembly Room on April 28. The event, titled “Life Lessons,” was free and open to the public.

Phuc is known for being the subject of the iconic photograph taken as she was fleeing a napalm bomb during the Vietnam War. The photo, titled “The Terror of War,” was taken by Nick Ut and won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. It remains one of the most iconic images of the war.

Since then, Phuc has created the Kim Foundation International, an organization that works to promote peace and help child victims of war across the world. She has also been named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

Dean of the faculty and history professor Catherine Epstein introduced Phuc and praised Phuc’s dignity and activism. She also thanked Bill and Yuko Hunt, parents of Louis Hunt ’15, for sponsoring the lecture.

Phuc provided brief context behind the iconic picture. Born in Vietnam, Phuc had a very happy childhood. She grew up in rural Vietnam and lived a simple life with her parents and siblings. Phuc recalled that the beginning of the war changed the course of her life, and that this was the first time that she had felt real fear.

In 1972, American soldiers dropped a series of napalm bombs on Phuc’s village. As Phuc and her family fled from the destruction, Ut captured Phuc as she ran from the bombs. Phuc said that all her clothes had been burned off her body and that she should have died, but she was taken to a hospital and underwent months of therapy and reconstructive surgery.
After this life-changing event, Phuc began a long journey of growth and realization. To continue this journey, Phuc works to share her lessons with other people, which is the purpose of her lecture at the college.

“Love is not always easy and gentle … sometimes, it is tough,” Phuc said, explaining that this was the first lesson she learned. After being released from the hospital, Phuc had to be taken care of by her family. The daily massages and physical therapy caused her almost unbearable pain, but with support and tough love from her family, she began to heal.

Phuc also emphasized the importance of education, explaining that the hardest part about recovering from her burns in the hospital was missing her friends and teachers from school. At the time, she believed that education was the best way to return to her normal life. She dreamed of being a doctor so that she could help people who had been hurt like her. At 19, Phuc was accepted to medical school, but the Vietnamese government prevented her from pursuing this path, deciding that she would instead serve the government by becoming a war symbol for the country.

After years of unwillingly representing the Vietnamese government, Phuc was allowed to go to Cuba to attend the University of Havana, where she met her husband. After several more years, she defected to Canada with her husband, explaining that the only way she could truly live was by pursuing freedom.

“We had each other, and we had freedom, so we had everything,” Phuc said, reminding the audience that they should appreciate all the benefits of living in a free country.

Phuc said that after defecting to Canada, she converted to Christianity, which played an important role in helping her forgive those who had done her wrong. She said that she worked and prayed to forgive her attackers a little more every day, and that over time, she was able to let go of the resentment in her heart, eventually completely forgiving the soldiers who dropped the napalm bombs on her village.

“I was free, and that is heaven on earth for me,” Phuc said regarding forgiving the soldiers.

To conclude the talk, Phuc talked about how she views the life-changing “napalm girl” photograph in a new way. She showed another photo, in which she held her her baby son, juxtaposed against the famous photo from the Vietnam War. Phuc said that this new picture symbolized healing by portraying her as a strong woman with high hopes for the future. Phuc asked the audience not to see the girl in the photograph as a symbol of war and pain, but rather to see her as a symbol for nonviolence and peace.

After presenting her main lecture, Phuc held a question and answer session. Members of the audience who spoke up included Vietnam War veterans and a fellow burn victim who expressed gratitude for Phuc’s courage and activism.

“Her hope and positivity touched every person in the room, from the Vietnam veterans who gained closure to myself,” Orianna Xu ’19 said. “They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but Kim’s picture was worth more than the twisted words of political propaganda it became translated to.”

“She is a living proof of human strength and resiliency,” Linh Le ’19 said. “She taught us that love and forgiveness can help us overcome anything.

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