The image of Kim Phuc that made her famous is haunting. She’s naked, running barefoot through the street with her arms outstretched, trying to escape a napalm attack in her hometown in Trang Bang, South Vietnam.
Kim was only 9 when that photo was taken.
And as the shutters of the journalists’ camera clicked, the skin on her back peeled off. The child was covered in napalm, a gelatinous chemical that sticks to anything and immediately starts burning the surface at upwards of 2,000 degrees. The peeled layers of her tan skin revealed the pink underneath — the dermal layers that were never meant to see daylight.
In 1972, when the photo was taken, Vietnam was at war. Troops from the south accidentally dropped napalm on their own city, although this account is hotly contested by historians. The napalm bombs hit a Buddhist temple where Kim’s family was staying. As she ran away from the sanctuary, she stripped her clothes off to get the chemicals off her skin. Still, the gel burned more than half her body. Two of her infant brothers were killed instantly when the four drums of napalm hit the road in front of them.
Kim is the girl in THAT photo — the one you’ve seen in history books and documentaries depicting the horrors of the Vietnam War.
The photographer who took that picture, Nick Ut, snapped the photo, then dropped his camera and took Kim to the hospital — something that’s unheard of in a profession that prides itself on observing without getting involved. Nick later won a Pulitzer for the image because it captured the sheer terror and unrelenting pain that comes after a napalm attack.
At the hospital, doctors thought Kim was dead. Her chin was fused to her chest, and her left arm was burned all the way down to the bone. They wrapped her in a rain poncho and took her to the morgue just because they thought she would end up there anyway. But Kim didn’t die tucked away in that morgue. She stayed there for three days until her family came to find her.
While Kim Phuc survived the napalm attack on her city, her suffering was just beginning. Her physical healing process would take years, but her spiritual healing would take even longer. It wasn’t until she learned about Jesus that she fully healed and was able to forgive the people — her own government — who dropped burning chemicals on her skin.
After the Shutters Closed
Kim spent 14 months in the hospital after the attack. Doctors and nurses were doing everything they could to heal the burns, but sometimes those treatments were so painful Kim passed out in the middle of them.
Still, she loved the idea that they were there to help. She decided then that she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, so after her hospital stay, she started working towards that goal.
At 19 she entered medical school, but soon the Vietnamese government made her stop so she could be available for media interviews. They turned her into a propaganda spokesperson — someone the government could use for political gain.
That’s when her world came crashing down — again.
Kim was overwhelmed with depression at the prospect of giving up her dream and unsure about what her place was in the world. Eventually, she stopped wanting to live and considered suicide because “there would be no more suffering … no more hatred, no more bitterness,” she told Today’s Christian Woman.
“The anger inside me was like a hatred as high as a mountain. I hated my life,” Kim wrote in an essay on NPR. “I hated all people who were normal because I was not normal. I really wanted to die many times.”
Getting Out of the Pit
But Kim is a survivor, and she wasn’t ready to completely give up on life just yet. She went to the library and started reading every book she could find about religion. Kim grew up practicing Cao Dai, a Vietnamese religion that mixes Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Caodaists believe in reincarnation, séances and karma.
Instead of returning to the religion she grew up with, Kim set out to find out more about other religions.
“I wanted to find the answer to my question – ‘Why me? Why do I have to suffer?’” she told People. “I thought no one would love me, and I’d never have a normal life.”
Then she read the Bible and fell in love with the Jesus who heals all scars — physical and emotional. After the napalm attack, Kim felt unwanted and unloved, that her scars made her repulsive to everyone. But when she started reading the Bible, she learned God wanted and loved her just the way she was.
In 1982, the same year Kim had to quit medical school, she became a Christian. While things were certainly looking up, Kim still had a hard task ahead of her.
Forgiving the Enemy
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the napalm attacks on the temple in Trang Bang. Some think it was a poor call by a pilot. Others think the South Vietnamese meant to bomb the shelter because there were North Vietnamese soldiers inside. Either way, Kim had a lot of hatred towards the people who scarred her.
After she became a Christian, Kim learned Jesus also taught forgiveness. That was going to be a tough pill for Kim to swallow, but she knew she needed to do it before she was fully healed.
“When I read that I thought, ‘No way. How can I forgive the people who did this to me?’ ” she told People. “It took me a long process to do that.”
It took time, but Kim ultimately forgave the pilot who bombed her village and the administration who approved the attack.
Only then could Kim say she was truly free from hatred.
Once the government was done using Kim for propaganda, they allowed her to move to Cuba to pursue an education. She met her husband there, and the couple had two sons.
Instead of keeping the lessons she’s learned to herself, Kim now visits burn units across the United States and Canada to talk to survivors about forgiving those who attacked them — everyone from victims of the Oklahoma City bombing to a woman whose husband threw acid in her face.
“Napalm is very powerful but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful,” Kim told NPR. “We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness.”
Kim’s road to peace hasn’t been easy or painless, but she’s learned to depend on God for everything because He is stronger than war, pain or suffering.