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From war to peace: Subject of famous photo shares story at The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe

L-R, Ken Ayers, development director at The Bridges of Rancho Santa Fe, Bui Huy Toan, Kim Phuc, JR Meyers. Photo by Diane Y. Welch
L-R, Ken Ayers, development director at The Bridges of Rancho Santa Fe, Bui Huy Toan, Kim Phuc, JR Meyers. Photo by Diane Y. Welch

A photograph captures a defining moment in 1972 during the height of the Vietnam War. A little girl is screaming in pain, trying to outrun the napalm that bombed her village of Tang Bang and that burned her body.

The image is forever seared into a global consciousness.

The famous 1972 image of the bombing of Tang Bang, courtesy The Bridges of Rancho Santa Fe; Photo by Nick Ut.
The famous 1972 image of the bombing of Tang Bang, courtesy The Bridges of Rancho Santa Fe; Photo by Nick Ut.

Today that child is 52 and is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace. Phan Thi Kim Phuc is considered an international treasure for the work that she now undertakes to help other victims of war-torn countries.

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The picture, awarded a Pulitzer Prize for AP photographer Nick Ut, illustrated the horrors of war thrust upon an innocent 9-year-old child. Some say the power of that image helped end the war.

Phuc shared her subsequent story of “Love, Hope and Forgiveness” with a rapt audience as part of “The Insiders’ Series” at The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe on Nov 3.

Invited by residents Jennifer and J.R. Meyers, Phuc’s presentation brought tears and reverent silence as she described the haunting day that defined her life and how since then she has suffered unimaginable pain.

Phuc’s life was saved by Ut that fateful day in June, 43 years ago, when he covered her naked body and accompanied her to a hospital, where she was given up for dead and placed in the morgue.

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Her family found her three days later, still alive, but barely. A doctor arranged to have Phuc transferred to a Saigon hospital.

After 17 operations, she survived. “Inside me was a strong little girl determined to live,” she said.

With her skin horribly disfigured, Phuc soon discovered — despite her survival — that the pain within her body would never go away.

From this act of violence, Phuc’s presentation traced her life, weaving a tale of tenacity as she grew stronger — aided by her loving mother — then went to school and was transferred to Havana University to study English and Spanish, where she met her future husband, Bui Huy Toan.

Long haunted by “that picture,” and the fact that the Vietnamese government had used her as a propaganda tool, Phuc knew in her heart that if she was ever going to be allowed the freedom to live on her terms, she would have to defect.

The chance came as the couple were returning to Cuba after a honeymoon in Moscow when their plane took a refueling stop in Newfoundland. They had only split seconds to decide. But Toan agreed to Phuc’s plan and they never got back on the plane, defecting to Canada where they were free to start a family and lead a normal life, and where they live today with two adult sons.

That plan changed when a photographer sought Phuc out and took a photograph, which once again had her unwittingly gaining worldwide attention.

As her story was being retold, Phuc was invited to speak at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1996, where she humbly spoke of peace. “I saw the rows upon rows of names. It was very emotional for me,” she recalled.

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But the event became far more than a public speech when the serviceman who had piloted the plane that bombed her village asked for her forgiveness. Capt. John Plummer had suffered his own open wound since that fateful day, and Phuc did not hesitate to forgive him. “It was a true reconciliation, more powerful than any weapons of war,” she explained.

Through her experience, Phuc has learned invaluable life lessons that we can all benefit from. Her belief in her Christian faith, her hope for humanity, and her ability to see the positive aspects of life have changed her perspective from a wounded victim to an ambassador of peace and forgiveness, despite her constant pain.

But the most difficult lesson was to take control of “that picture,” she said. For so many years, she wanted to hide from it. “Then I realized I could accept it as a powerful gift, so now I work with that picture for good.”

Visit www.kimfoundation.com to learn about Kim Phuc’s charity, founded to support the work of international organizations that provide free medical assistance to children who are victims of war and terrorism. Building schools and hospitals and providing aid for refugees are some of the projects funded since its founding in 1997.


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