It was on a Christmas morning exactly like this one in 1982 when a 19-year-old Vietnamese girl woke up as a totally different person. Ten years before the image of the screaming Kim Phuc – then only nine years old -- literally shocked the entire world when a picture showed her terribly burned body completely nude, this after she had been doused with napalm due to a pilot’s error and the terrified child had torn them off. The picture was so horrifying President Richard Nixon thought at first it had been staged.
No, it was the real thing and so magnificently captured the horror of war that many Americans feel Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-Prize photo helped end the senseless travesty. In 20 years 58,000 Americans died in Viet Nam, over 300,000 more were wounded, but nothing galvanized the American people to demand we get out of Vietnam more than the terror of the innocent "Napalm Girl."
The doctors in Saigon didn’t give Kim a chance at first but after 14 agonizing months in the hospital where 17 surgeries were performed, she got out to return to her home in Trang Bang with the war still raging. The pain – ravishing and constant, the heavy bitterness, her body scarred forever and her life all but ruined, we can only imagine her teenaged years. The heavy scars, the burned joints and her body horribly disfigured, she was unable to move freely but in 1982, she was admitted to a world-renowned hospital in Germany where surgeons gave her the ability to function for the first time. Her motion partially restored, there would be a far bigger blessing on Christmas Day in 1982.
The night before, she had been invited to a Christian service and that Christmas Eve she sat in a little church and heard about the birth of a babe in Bethlehem many years before. The "Napalm Girl" felt something stir inside of her as never before. She will never forget the Christmas morning – just like this one -- when she began to heal for the very first time. She was at peace.
Just last week, the normally-staid Wall Street Journal printed a guest op-ed column – written by Kim herself -- that told about her first Christmas as a child of Jesus Christ. She can describe what has happened since far better than I can.
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HOW THE ‘NAPALM GIRL’ FOUND PEACE ON CHRISTMAS DAY
Note: This story originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal’s print editions on December 22, 2017.
By Kim Phuc Phan Thi
You may not recognize me now, but you almost certainly know who I am. My name is Kim Phuc, though you likely know me by another name. It is one I never asked for, a name I have spent a lifetime trying to escape: "Napalm Girl."
You have probably seen my picture a thousand times. Yes, that picture. The image that made the world gasp. Some called it a turning point in the Vietnam War—a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of me in 1972, age 9, running along a puddled roadway in front of an expressionless soldier. I was photographed with arms outstretched, naked and shrieking in pain and fear, with the dark contour of a napalm cloud billowing in the distance.
My own people had dropped bombs on Route 1 in an effort to cut off the trade routes for the Viet Cong rebels. I had not been targeted. I had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Those bombs have caused me immeasurable pain over the course of my life. Forty-five years later I am still receiving treatment for the burns that cover my arms, back and neck. But even worse than the physical pain was the emotional and spiritual pain. For years I bore the crippling weight of anger, bitterness and resentment toward those who caused my suffering.
Yet as I look back over a spiritual journey that has spanned more than three decades, I realize the same bombs that caused so much pain and suffering also brought me to a place of great healing. Those bombs led me to Jesus Christ.
My salvation experience occurred on Christmas Eve. It was 1982. I was attending a special worship service at a small church in Vietnam. The pastor, Ho Hieu Ha, delivered a message many Christians would find familiar: Christmas is not about the gifts we carefully wrap and place under a tree. Rather, it is about the gift of Jesus Christ, who was wrapped in human flesh and given to us by God. As the pastor spoke, I knew in my heart that something was shifting inside of me.
A decade removed from the defining tragedy of my life, I still desperately needed peace. I had so much hatred and bitterness in my heart. Yet I was ready for love and joy. I wanted to let go of my pain. I wanted to pursue life instead of holding fast to fantasies of death. When Pastor Ho finished speaking, I stood up, stepped out into the aisle, and made my way to the front of the sanctuary to say "yes" to Jesus Christ.
When I woke up that Christmas morning, I experienced my first-ever heartfelt celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I know what it is like to experience terror, to feel despondent, to live in fear. I know how wearying and hopeless life can be sometimes. After years in the spiritual wilderness, I felt the kind of healing that can only come from God.
I had spent so much of my life running—first from the bombs and the war, then from communist Vietnam. I had always assumed that to flee was my only choice. Looking back, I understand the path I had been racing along led me straight to God. Today I live at ease. Yes, my circumstances can still be challenging. But my heart is 100% healed.
My faith in Jesus Christ is what has enabled me to forgive those who had wronged me—no matter how severe those wrongs were. Faith also inspired me to pray for my enemies rather than curse them. It enabled me not only to tolerate those who had wronged me but to love them.
No matter what type of pain or sorrow you may be experiencing, as Christmas approaches, I encourage you not to give up. Hold fast to hope. It is hope that will see you through. This peace I have found can be yours as well. I pray that it finds you this Christmas.
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Ms. Kim is the author of "Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness, and Peace" (Tyndale Momentum, 2017). She lives in the Toronto area with her husband and two children.