Kim Phuc is “the girl in the picture”, maybe the most iconic picture of the Vietnam War, and 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 in a village that was far from the war, but the war came to them. The villagers had taken refuge in the local temple, as the South Vietnamese took 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 the panic and fear until she couldn’t run anymore.
When she stopped running, a soldier gave her water. She cried, “Too hot! Too hot!”, and the soldier poured water on her, thinking it would ease her pain. The water reacted with the napalm, though, and intensified the pain. She passed out. She 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. They didn’t have enough room for her because of the number of patients that needed help. There wasn’t hope for her, so they moved her to a morgue. Her mother and brother found her and carried her back to the hospital. Her father arrived, and she was transferred to a burn clinic in Saigon.
Every morning the nurse took her to the “burn bath” to soften her dead skin to be removed. She cried through the excruciatingly painful process until she passed out. She had 18 surgeries, and almost a dozen laser treatments. She spent years in pain, physical and emotional, despairing that she would never live a without the physical and emotional scars she carried.
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, fearing that something would happen to them, that would leave her alone.
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 very lonely. She was no longer the beautiful young girl she once was. She thought she was 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 event that left Kim scarred for life. War continued around her 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. The suffering continued.
The Vietnamese government discovered that Kim was the girl in the picture. Kim wanted to be a doctor. She enrolled in medical school, but the Vietnamese government found her. They took her away from school, and they began to use her as a propaganda tool.
At age 19, with her dreams and aspirations snuffed out, 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?
“Deep down in my heart,” she said, “I was seeking.”