It was a cold, half rain half snow kind of evening last late April, with driving conditions that had reduced visibility and reduced braking efficiency. It was one of those drives where you breathe a sigh of relief, and say a prayer of thanks when you arrive safely. My wife and I were also driving an elderly couple from my church. They really wanted to listen to this speaker as much as we did. With the weather the way it was, our typical 40 minute drive ended up being much longer. We arrived to find the parking lot completely packed. It was then decided I would make sure the elderly couple got inside safely, and find them a seat, while my wife parked the car. I was then to meet my wife at a seldom used rear entrance door to this beautiful 18th century church.
While I was waiting just inside the deserted back entrance, I watched an incredibly dignified, elegant woman dressed in a long satiny aqua blue dress slowly walk towards me. I had never met her, but I knew instantly who she was. Our eyes met, and she gave me the most big, beautiful. generous and genuine smile. There was absolutely no one else around. It was extremely surreal to be acknowledged by such an iconic world figure in such a caring fashion. She then disappeared into a small office by the back door for a few minutes of quiet before she got on the platform to speak.
It was only a couple of minutes after my wife and I eventually located a pair of empty seats in the balcony area that this same dignified, elegant woman was introduced and then she began to speak with these words, “I believe everyone has a story to tell, but tonight it is my turn.” Her name was Kim Phuc, better known as “The Napalm Girl” or “The Girl in the Picture.” She then took us back to that horrific day over 40 years ago during the Vietnam War when her life was forever changed.
In a quiet, soft spoken voice she had us riveted to our seats. You could have heard a pin drop as she took us all back to June 8th, 1972. She lived north of Saigon in the Central Highlands, with her very close family in a small village called Trang Bang. The village had been attacked and occupied by North Vietnamese forces. Her home and property was overtaken and her entire family fled to nearby Caodai temple, encamping in an outbuilding with about 30 others, where there also about 10 south Vietnamese soldiers. The fighting outside the temple grounds was fierce. There was some security having those soldiers in their presence, one who was often engaged on a two way radio. Air defense assaults had already taken place in various parts of the village. Planes would fly in tandem. The first plane would drop highly explosive bombs to hit and open up targets like bunkers or tunnels built by the invading north, the second plane dropped napalm, designed to burn to death any survivors.
In the Kim Phuc’s bestselling book titled “The Girl In the Picture” authored by Denise Chong, she describes napalm. The term “napalm” comes from the combination of naphthenic and palmetic acid. When it lands through an explosive bomb, the burning napalm distributes with the phosphorous jelly and sticks to whatever it lands on. Landing on human flesh, it will burn at 800-1200C. If the gel that lands is a thicker nature such as coming from a direct hit, it will keep burning downward, feeding on fat and muscle down to the bone. Victims of a napalm attack were not expected to live.
What happened next can best be described as a misplaced napalm bomb strike, and confusion from the pilots of the location of the Communist forces and the South Vietnamese forward positions. When it became apparent that a napalm bomb strike was imminent, the soldiers told the civilians to “run, everything is going to be destroyed.” While running, Kim took a direct hit of napalm to the back of her body. She kept running and running, crying in Vietnamese “too hot, too hot” until she ran out of the inferno and into the camera viewfinders of several international war photographers watching from the distance. One of that group was Nick Ut, the AP photographer who took the iconic picture that symbolized the Vietnam War. One soldier gave Kim a drink from his canteen. Another unknowingly poured water on her still burning napalm, causing much worse pain, and she fainted.
Kim describes her fainting as merciful. Even though Nick Ut had newspaper deadlines to meet, he did the humane thing. He had Kim Phuc and another adult victim go in his AP van to the nearest hospital. Little did Nick know, that Kim would end up in a small outbuilding for children expected to die. After frantic searching, Kim’s parents located her. They pleaded for her to go to another hospital, where permission was given for Kim to be transferred to an American hospital called Barsky Hospital in Saigon. Breaking hospital rules (there was no hospital in all Vietnam equipped to handle fresh napalm burn victims), a Dr. My Le admitted Kim and got her treatment started.
The daily cleansing of removing dead skin and tissue of a burn victim, is said to be the most intense pains known to human beings. But it is necessary to ward off any more infection, and to allow new tissue to regenerate. Kim Phuc spent 14 months in hospital in excruciating pain. With many extremely serious issues arising from the burns, which included 3rd degree burns to over 35% of her body, and a left arm burnt almost to the bone, it would take 17 surgery’s to save her life.
With the care that she received at Barsky, Kim Phuc dreamed of one day becoming a doctor. She started her pre-med studies in Saigon, when she was pulled out against her will and used for propaganda films by the communists. This was a very dark time for her, and Kim became depressed and wanted to die. Through an amazing turn of events Kim received political asylum in Canada. She is married, has two children and lives just about a two hour drive from me in Canada. She has become a Christian, and has met and forgiven the person who authorized the napalm attack. She connected and became good friends with Nick Ut. His photograph changed both their lives. For Nick Ut, he received the 1973 Pulitzer photo of the year. It would be years before Kim actually saw this photo of herself. In the end, it was the picture that set the stage to escape the clutches of the Communists and find her freedom in Canada. She mentioned that there are SO many war victims not as fortunate as her.
Kim has founded and heads up The Kim Phuc Foundation International, a non-profit organization that provides much needed medical and psychological assistance for the innocent child victims of war. On top of that, she is a very much in demand public speaker, sharing forgiveness and hope in a world of so much hatred and violence. As Kim closed her presentation, she humbly asked for prayer. For safety as she travels and speaks from place to place. Also she asked for prayer for her pain. For over 40 years she has lived through this chronic constant pain because of the nerve damage from the napalm burns.
I met up with Kim Phuc after her presentation where she was signing her books. She remembered me as “the man waiting by the door”, and lingered to spend a couple of minutes to talk and joke with me while she signed my copy of her book. And she thanked me profusely several times for coming to hear her speak.
War is a horrific thing. Not only does it destroy property, it destroys the lives of fellow human beings. It is only through God’s grace and forgiveness that Kim Phuc has become that beautiful, elegant and dignified woman she is, as she extends grace and forgiveness to the world around her.
The latest development in Kim Phuc’s journey since last April is she has started receiving laser treatments from a generous Miami doctor, who has offered her services pro bono. A Toronto Star article and accompanying video within the last month about this breakthrough treatment can be found here! My prayer that while on this earth “The Napalm Girl” will be healed of her chronic pain and be able to live a life that is free of pain.
Thank you for reading! 🙂