Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the subject of that photo, can still vividly recall every intimate detail of that moment — the napalm ravaging her slight body, inducing pain so intense that she lost consciousness.
Perhaps as miraculous as her surviving that dark episode in time is the fact that she willfully revisits it all these years later as a means to the most noble of ends.
“We cannot change the past, but we can heal the future,” Kim said. “I’m so thankful that God gave me a new life. Yes, I still have scars. Yes, I still have a lot of pain to endure … but, my heart is clean and free from hate.”
The married mother of two — a soft-spoken force of nature in many respects — captivated a pair of audiences with her message of hard-fought forgiveness while visiting the metro Atlanta area last week in support of continuous global humanitarian/anti-war endeavors. Her first stop was the High Museum of Art in Midtown, where she regaled a crowd on hand for the Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School Department Chair Speaker Series’ “Enduring Spirit” event with her emotional autobiographical tale. She also spoke at an assembly at Holy Innocents’ the following day.
Kim, as she prefers to be called, made an appearance on the school’s campus later in the week to do the same.
“I have to share with you how horrible war is — people suffering and in pain,” she said. “It’s not like [some] movie. People suffer … [if only] they could see how beautiful the world can be if everyone can learn to forgive.
“Hope and forgiveness. … If everyone can learn to be like that, I am sure we won’t need war.”
For much of her life, Kim longed to escape the immense shadow of the “little girl in the picture,” as she’s routinely been called. Few could blame her for wanting to forget.
The UNESCO Goodwill ambassador was only 9 when American and South Vietnamese troops dropped napalm bombs on her village, near Saigon. Nick Ut, the man who snapped what would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning image of her, helped rush the badly burned girl to a hospital almost immediately after.
Fourteen months and 17 surgeries later, Kim emerged from medical care an enduring symbol of the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man. Her own country’s government exploited that status until, as a young woman, she defected to Canada.
These days, Kim and her younger self essentially walk hand-in-hand. A photo of an adult Kim holding her then-infant son with the aforementioned image from the war seared on the former’s back is cast as a backdrop via projector during her public speeches to accentuate this convergence of past, present and future.
Credit an indomitable light lurking beneath the middle-aged-woman’s extensive scar tissue adorning her back and extremities for the remarkable turnaround. And, a healthy dose of faith.
“Desire, determination and discipline … that’s how you [persevere],” she said. “And, I ask God to free my heart from hatred, free my mind from worry. … That’s how I [survived].”
o Enduring Spirit
Modeled after the increasingly popular TED (technology, entertainment and design) talks, the “Enduring Spirit” event featured an eclectic lineup of speakers from diverse backgrounds — a celebration billed as evening focused on how some persevere in the face of closed doors, disability, pain and war.
Holy Innocents’ students Sam Fallon and Owen Penn were among those tapped to share the stage with Kim. The senior lacrosse players were instrumental in bringing the Wheelchair Exhibition and Clinic to Atlanta — an athletic platform for wounded veterans and other disabled people — over the summer.
In recounting that time, Fallon perhaps summed up the Enduring Spirit collective.
“To get to know these people on a personal level,” he said, “is an experience I will never forget.”
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