Perhaps the picture most associated with the Vietnam War is one of a young Vietnamese girl running naked down a road, screaming in pain while clothed children run beside her and soldiers with guns run behind them.
Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the woman who was once the girl in that picture, spoke Wednesday night at Northern about her experiences in the Vietnam War and how the picture has influenced her life.
“Before the war, I was never afraid. Then one day, the war started and it came to our village,” Phuc said to a group of about 380 in the Great Lakes Rooms.
The picture was taken in Trang Bang, South Vietnam, on June 8, 1972 after American and South Vietnamese planes napalmed the village, which was under attack and occupied by North Vietnamese forces. A South Vietnamese plane mistook the group of children and South Vietnamese soldiers running down the road as enemy soldiers, and diverted to attack them.
Phuc was nine years old at the time and was severely burned down her back and across her shoulders. Two of her cousins died in the attack. Doctors thought Phuc would not survive the severe burns on her body, but after a 14-month hospital stay and 17 surgical procedures, she returned home.
“I didn’t even hear the explosion; I just saw the fire all around me,” Phuc said.
Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer who took the photo, immediately took action after snapping the famous shot. He put down his camera and drove her to the hospital.
“The pain was unbelievable. I would pass out every time the nurses put me in the burn bath,” she said. “I almost died many, many times.”
After surviving her stay in the hospital, she had to learn two years worth of school in one year so she could catch up with her friends. When she turned 19, she was accepted into medical school, but the Vietnamese government began using her as a national figure to speak to the foreign press.
“I am not a political person,” she said. “I wanted to be left alone to study, but they didn’t care what I wanted.”
Years later, she was given permission to continue her studies in Cuba. There, she met Bui Huy Toan, her future husband. They were married in 1992 and the two honeymooned in Moscow.
On the way back from their honeymoon, while their plane was refueling in Newfoundland, Phuc and her husband defected to Canada. Phuc said she valued freedom, and freedom was not something she could get either in Vietnam or Cuba. They got off the plane and the Canadian government allowed them political asylum. Today, Phuc is a Canadian citizen and has two children.
“Because of the scars, I thought I would never have a boyfriend, never get married and never have a baby. But I was so wrong,” she said.
In 1996, Phuc went to Washington, D.C., on Veteran’s Day to give a speech at the Vietnam War Memorial. Reverend John Plummer was a Vietnam veteran in attendance who felt he was in part responsible for the destruction of Phuc’s village. He went there specifically to try to speak with her, and when he succeeded, Phuc publicly forgave him.
“After I met John, and I forgave him. We became friends,” she said.
Today, Phuc travels internationally for her organization, Kim Phuc Foundation International. The Foundation works to help children who are impoverished and child war victims around the world by working with other organizations to get them the care they need. The foundation currently has projects in Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Romania, East Timor and Tajikistan.
“Years ago, I was a child of war,” Phuc said. “People found ways to help that little girl, and now that little girl is ready to give back.”
Karl Mercer, a member of the Honors Student Organization, one of the organizations that sponsored the event, said he felt it was important for students to hear what Phuc had to say.
“America’s been at war for about eight years now,” said Mercer. “Considering that we’re now looking at withdrawing from Iraq, the same way we withdrew from Vietnam, I wanted to bring her to kind of show the true face of war.”
Mercer first heard about Phuc while he was studying abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam last year. While he was there, he read a book about “The Girl in the Picture.” He thought her story was very moving, and began thinking about how he could bring her to Northern.
The event was co-sponsored by Platform Personalities and the Honors Student Organization.