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Human Interest

How the Vietnam War's 'Napalm Girl' Found Love, Hope and Forgiveness – and Helps Others Do the Same

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Michelle Bruzzese

For the first decade after she was burned by napalm bombs mistakenly dropped on the south Vietnamese temple where she and her family had taken refuge, Kim Phuc was angry, bitter and full of hatred, she tells PEOPLE.

The scars that covered 65 percent of her body were not only disfiguring – making her believe no one would ever love her – they hurt. A lot.

“I had a lot of physical and emotional pain,” she says.

Converting to Christianity at age 19 helped her finally find “peace and joy,” she says.

“It changed my life,” Phuc, 54, shares. “My heart is healed.”

For the past 20 years, Phuc has traveled the world telling her story of hope borne out of despair. While her emotional wounds healed long ago, she is currently undergoing laser treatments to rid herself of her scars.

Converting to Christianity was the first step she took toward putting her past behind her. It happened during a bleak period in her life. The Vietnamese government made her quit medical school so she could be available for media interviews.

South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places on June 8, 1972.
Nick Ut/AP
Phuc had dreamed of becoming a doctor since shortly after she was injured on June 8, 1972, when she was just 9 years old.

Her 14-month hospital stay – though full of treatments so torturous she passed out in the middle of them – made her grateful to the doctors and nurses who cared for her.

“They were there every moment when I needed them,” she says. “I said, ‘OK. I want to be like them.’ I can help myself and another who needs help just like me.”

The dream carried her through some dark years. She returned to a home and village that had been virtually destroyed by the war. An uncle and a cousin were sent to “re-education camps” for several years and came back shadows of their formal selves.

“It made them mentally damaged,” she says.

Having her dream of attending medical school taken away was just as crushing.

“I stopped wanting to live,” she says. “That was a really low point for me. I doubted God.”

So she went to the library and began reading every religious book she could find.

“I wanted to find the answer to my question – ‘Why me? Why do I have to suffer?’ ” she says. “I thought no one would love me and I’d never have a normal life.”

It was then she stumbled upon the New Testament of the Bible, one of the tenets of the Christian religion which emphasizes forgiveness.

“When I read that I thought, ‘No way. How can I forgive the people who did this to me?’ ” she says. “It took me a long process to do that.”

The government finally relented and in 1986, Phuc moved to Cuba to attend medical school.

It was there she met Bui Huy Toan, a north Vietnamese student who captured her heart.

Her scars only made him love her more, he told her.

“When I saw them I felt like she suffered so much,” Bui Huy, 55, tells PEOPLE. “I got more attracted. I wanted to help her.”

Falling in love helped ease the pain when she discovered that, due to her injuries, she didn’t have the stamina to become a doctor. Five years later, they married then defected to Canada. They have two sons – Thomas, 21, and Stephen, 18.

Kim Phuc on June 8, 1972
David Burnett/Contact Press Images
In 1997, Kim started a foundation to help other child victims of war. That same year, she also became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for peace. Ever since, she’s traveled the world telling her story of love, hope and forgiveness.

It’s not a message some are not ready to hear, she says.

After one such presentation in Ohio, a woman who’d lost her daughter in the Oklahoma City bombing and was raising her grandchild, stood near the door as she left and angrily confronted her.

“I said, ‘Ma’am, can you have dinner tonight?’ ” Phuc says. “She accepted and the whole dinner she was upset about my philosophy. I said, ‘You know what? I can’t change what happened in the past. I was nine. I got burned so badly, but what can I do? I never live in the past. I learn from it.’

“After that she said, ‘You’re right. I’ll try it.’ ”

Kim Phuc on Sept. 25, 2015.
Nick Ut/AP
Another memorable experience came when she traveled to a burn unit in Uganda – in a hospital built by her foundation. It was the first time she’d been in one since she’d left the hospital 20 years prior.

“It was a big sacrifice,” she says. “It brought me back to the burn unit I was in. So painful. So scary.”

During the emotional visit, she was taken to meet a woman whose husband had thrown acid on her face.

“The nurse said, ‘Kim, she doesn’t want to eat anymore. She doesn’t want to live,’ ” says Phuc. “I got close to her and I talked to her and I showed her my scars.”

At first, she didn’t want to hear it, Phuc admits.

“She said, ‘Kim, you talk about forgiveness. How can I forgive my husband who did this to me?’ ” she recalls. ” ‘You can hide your scars with clothes. My scars are so visible. I have a store. No one comes to my store. I have no more friends. I hate him. How can I learn to forgive?’

“I said, ‘I had the same question for a long, long time in my life, but I know through experience God loves me for who I am, not how I look. I trusted God to bring the right people to my life. And He did.’

” ‘But trust God. If you are true, a true friend will come into your life. You don’t need a ton of friends.’ ”

“After a while, she listened and she softened,” Phuc says. “The nurse saw me later and said, ‘Kim, I’m so thankful you spent time with her. After you left she stood up. She’s smiling. You gave her hope. She doesn’t want to die anymore.’ ”

Stories like these are what keep Phuc going. She takes no salary from her foundation. Instead, she and her husband, Bui Huy Toan, live off his salary as a social worker for disabled and handicapped adults in Toronto.

While Phuc is getting treatments now to heal the physical wounds left on her body from the napalm, her emotional wounds healed a long time ago.

“I learned how to move on, how to cope and I’m thankful,” she says.

For more on this story pick up this week’s PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.