Guest speaker Kim Phúc shares story of forgiveness

For many people, Kim Phúc is “the Napalm girl,” but her life story is so much more than can be contained in one image. Trinity College School students and staff had the opportunity to hear from Ms. Phúc Phan Ti and be inspired by her journey to forgiveness, as she spoke in Cirne Commons on Tuesday, May 17th as part of Asian Heritage Month.

Ms. Phúc was immortalized in a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, of children running down a road in the aftermath of the napalm bombing of Trang Bang during the Vietnam War. Ms. Phúc described her life prior to that moment: “For nine years, I felt safe and loved,” she said. She lived in a nice home with her family, played with friends and rode her bicycle. She was “a happy child, always laughing.”

Then came June 8, 1972. “I will never forget that day,” Ms. Phúc recalled. “For the first time in my life I knew fear.” Soldiers came banging on her family’s door. South Vietnamese planes were dropping napalm bombs on the town, which had been invaded by North Vietnamese forces. The family fled to a temple and then ran out to find a safer position when the planes, mistaking them for the enemy, dropped the burning liquid on them. Ms. Phúc’s clothes were burned from her body and she received third degree burns over her body. Mr. Ut rushed her and other children to the hospital. When her family located her three days later, she was in the morgue, left to die.

She did not die, and after 17 operations and 14 months in the hospital, she returned home. But her journey was just beginning. She would require regular care and exercises to continue to heal her body. She learned strength, determination and discipline. And she experienced the healing power of love.

But Ms. Phúc was filled with dark feelings. She said she often asked “Why me?” Why did she have to suffer? Would she ever look normal? Would she ever get married and have a family? She had been used as a propaganda tool by the government, and was not allowed to pursue her education. She was also carrying the weight of her anger and hatred towards those who had hurt her. “The most important and difficult lesson I had to learn was how to forgive.”

Ms. Phúc compares the pain she was experiencing to black coffee and says that after becoming a Christian she began to work every day “pouring my hate out a little at a time. At first the cup filled up again, but slowly, the black coffee was less and less. One day there was no black coffee left.” She was then able to fill her cup back up with love, patience, compassion and forgiveness. She prayed for those who had once been her enemies. “I felt forgiveness completely in my heart. It didn’t happen overnight. But when I experienced real forgiveness, my heart was set free.”

In 1992, she was married and she and her husband sought political asylum in Canada. They continue to live here today and she now has two grown sons and two grandchildren. She holds seven honorary degrees, has served as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and speaks around the world.

We were so fortunate to have Ms. Phúc share her story with us, and to join us for lunch before her talk and, following the presentation, to respond to questions and sign copies of her book, Fire Road: The Napalm Girl's Journey Through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness, and Peace. Ms. Phúc genuinely enjoyed meeting many staff members and students, many of whom helped with the event. Special thanks go to senior leadership and the academic office; the property, IT services and communications departments; the staff members who supported Ms. Phúc throughout her day; Ruby Zheng and Eric Jin, who introduced and thanked Ms. Phúc, and other Cultural Awareness Group members including Hannah Hwang for helping with book orders; CAG faculty advisor, Mrs. Rachel Stephens; and finally, to students and staff who attended and who asked heartfelt questions.