Kim Phuc is “the girl in the picture”, maybe the most iconic picture of the Vietnam War. It’s one of the most memorable wartime photos ever taken. She is the girl in the picture running from a napalm bomb that dropped on her village.
Kim grew up in a happy family that was well off and lived far from the war, or so they thought. Then, the war came to them. The villagers had taken refuge in the local temple, and the South Vietnamese Army had taken up guard to protect them.
One day, however, planes flew overhead. The first plane dropped a marker at the temple. The soldiers, knowing what that meant, screamed for everyone to run. As Kim reached the exit of the temple, she saw another plane coming in low, fast and loud. She saw the bombs drop, and she froze.
Before she knew what was happening, she was surrounded by flames. When she saw her arm on fire, she ran in panic and fear until she couldn’t run anymore.
When she stopped running, a soldier gave her water. She remembers crying, “Too hot! Too hot!”. The soldier poured water on her, thinking it would ease her pain, but the water reacted with the napalm. It intensified the pain, and she passed out.
Kim suffered 3rd degree burns over a third of her body. The photographer who took the photo dropped his camera and took her to the hospital.
The hospital didn’t have enough room for her because of the number of patients. She was in such bad condition they moved her to a morgue. They left her for dead.
Her mother and brother finally found her and carried her back to the hospital. When her father arrived, and she was transferred to a burn clinic in Saigon. She had hope, but it would be a long, painful road ahead.
Every morning when the nurse took her to the “burn bath” to soften her dead skin to be removed, she cried through the excruciating pain until she passed out. She had almost a dozen laser treatments. She had 18 surgeries. She spent years in physical and emotional pain.
Her father spent all his waking hours tending to her with a broken heart. She was in so much pain, they prayed that she would die. They feared that something would happen to them that would leave her alone in her pain.
She lived of course, but she was ashamed of her scars. Friends stopped wanting to be with her. Her family loved her, but she became lonely. She was no longer the beautiful young girl she once was. She saw herself as ugly.
She also lived with trauma and nightmares from her experience. She was filled with bitterness, hatred and anger. She kept asking, “Why me?!” She despaired of life. She felt like death would give her an end to the suffering and pain that she lived with.
The war continued for three years after the initial napalm attack on Kim’s village, and her family lost everything they had. When the Americans withdrew, leaving the North Vietnamese in control, her parents and family were broken up, and the suffering continued.
After the war, Kim wanted to be a doctor. She enrolled in medical school, but the Vietnamese government found her. They discovered that Kim was the girl in the picture, and they took her away from school to use her as a propaganda tool.
At age 19, she was at the lowest point in her life. The questions intensified. Why me?!! Why did I have to be burned and suffer? “Why didn’t I die?” What is the purpose of it all? She had little hope and no future of her own.
“Deep down in my heart,” she said, “I was seeking.”
She had found no comfort in her native religion, Caodaism, a Vietnamese syncretic, monotheistic religion that combines elements of most of the major world religions. Kim Phuc says they “believed in everything”. They prayed to and worshiped all religious figures and symbols, but, she says, “Something was missing”.
She was told she must be paying for living wrongly in a previous life. That answer didn’t seem right to her, and it didn’t help with all that she was experiencing. At the brink of wanting to end her life, she intensified her search.
She began spending her time in the Saigon library reading through the books on religion, one by one. Among the hundreds of books on religion in the library, she found a New Testament and began reading it. The more she read, the more questions she had.
When she read John 14:6, she was “really confused”. In John 14:6, Jesus answered a question from one of his followers about the way they should go with the following statement:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Kim had grown up believing in everything, and she was confronted with the proposition that either the religion she grew up with was right, or Jesus was right.
As she continued reading, she was asking in her heart, “Where are you God? Do you really exist? Please help me.” She had no peace in her life. She was heavily burdened with all she had been through. She continued to carry the bitterness and anger that burned inside her.
She continued out of curiosity to read the New Testament, drawn to the person of Jesus, who had suffered also, like her. At the same time, she prayed for one friend with whom she could share her burdens. She was isolated and friendless, and she didn’t want to live anymore.
At this time, her brother-in-law’s cousin visited the family. She knew he was a Christian, so she asked him her questions. He said, “Only one Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins”, just what she had read, but she didn’t believe it.
He invited her to church. That’s where God answered her prayer. She went for several months, but everything changed on Christmas. He asked, “Do you know why we celebrate Christmas?” When he got done explaining and invited everyone to open their hearts and accept Jesus as a personal savior. He said, “If you will open your hearts and accept him, he will bring peace and take away any burden.”
Those words touched her heart. She stood up and went forward by herself, opened her heart, and accepted Jesus as her personal savior.
As she tells the story many years later, she says that Christmas Eve 1982 was “an amazing turning point” in her life. Her outside circumstances didn’t change one bit, but everything changed inside her heart. She was filled with joy and peace She still had physical scars, but she says, “God healed my heart.”
She stopped asking, “Why me?” She began asking God to help her. She began to trust and obey God, “because He is able. He can do impossible things in my life.” The one thing she couldn’t do was to forgive the people who hurt her and love them.
It took some time, but she realized that she needed to obey and forgive. She learned to be positive. She began to count her blessings. She realized that she was burned badly, but her feet weren’t burned, and that allowed her to run out of the fire. She has horrible scars, but her face and hands weren’t burned.
She realized that her heart was as dark black as coffee, full of hatred and bitterness, and it wouldn’t change if she didn’t pour it out. She learned to pour the hatred out, and God refilled her cup with light, hope, patience, understanding and forgiveness.
Eventually, she learned to pray for her enemies who caused her suffering.
She learned that God is love. He was there in that fire with her though she didn’t know Him yet. She lives now to tell people that God is always there for people if people will call on Him. She says, “He will answer you as He did answer me.”
You can read Kim Phuc’s story in all of the intimate details in the book she has written, “Fire Road”. She was a victim of war at 9 years old. She became a victim of North Vietnamese propaganda as a teenager, but God has given her victory over those circumstances by loving God and loving the people around her.
You can also her Kim tell her own story in this series of two interviews:
If you found Kim Phuc’s story inspiring, you might want to listen to inspiring stories of of other people in Journeys of Faith.