A Searing Image Vietnam: Kim Phuc, the little girl burned so badly by napalm and so vividly into America's memory, comes in peace to help the healing.

November 12, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For as long as Americans contemplate the suffering of war, they will be haunted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phuc.

Face contorted in agony from the napalm that coats her waif's body and burns its way through skin and muscle down to her very bone, she runs naked and screaming down Highway One in Central Vietnam.

Twenty-four years later, that child again laid claim to America's attention in a most unusual setting and before a most unexpected audience. Now 33, a wife and a mother, a smiling Kim Phuc lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial yesterday and said that she forgives the country that delivered the weapons that scarred her life forever. Speaking to a hushed crowd of Vietnam vets, she said that the picture of her taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut must stand as a protest against war everywhere and for all time.

"I want you to remember the tragedy of war in order to stop fighting and killing around the world," she said.

Phuc's attendance at the Vietnam memorial joined two of the most powerful and enduring symbols of the Vietnam tragedy, at once capturing the sufferings of citizens of both countries.

With that symbolism in mind, Jan Scruggs, who started the fund to erect the Vietnam memorial, invited Phuc to attend yesterday's ceremony two weeks ago.

"We had a chance to give a symbol to the world that people must start the healing process after the killing stops," he said shortly after the ceremony. "I just have to believe this did some good."

Since it was erected a decade ago, the black-faced memorial has fueled America's continuing soul-searching over what happened to us in Vietnam. Phuc's appearance yesterday was a reminder of the price paid by others.

She sat on the speaker's platform yesterday between Scruggs and Col. Norm McDaniel, an American pilot during the war who was a POW for six years. Occasionally, McDaniel took Phuc's hand in his and squeezed it.

Originally, Phuc wasn't expected to speak, but at a dinner Sunday night, she told Scruggs she had changed her mind. The first words from her mouth yesterday were "Dear friends."

In her brief remarks, she referred to the pain she had endured after the South Vietnamese dropped napalm on the pagoda that she and her family believed would provide a refuge from the intense fighting that was destroying her homeland.

"I have suffered a lot from my physical and emotional pain," she said. "I did not think I could marry or have children," she said.

Although Phuc granted no interviews yesterday, she has spoken before of the agony she endured from third-degree burns over half her body. After the bombing, she fell unconscious for several days, which was a blessing. For six months after she awoke, she was forced to lay on her stomach to avoid the searing pain she felt whenever she moved. Her chin had been welded to her chest by scar tissue. Her left arm had almost no flesh left on it. She received numerous skin grafts. Because the skin does not breathe normally, she still suffers abnormally from the cold and the heat.

Gradually, though, she did regain use of her hand and her arm, rTC though she always rued not being able to wear short-sleeve shirts like her teen-age friends. Still, she got on with her life. In 1986, she accepted a government invitation to study in Cuba. It was there that she met her future husband. Two years ago, they were on a plane together that stopped to refuel in Canada. On impulse, they got off and asked for asylum. They now live in Toronto with their 2-year-old son.

Phuc, who is an evangelical Christian, said yesterday that if she ever met the South Vietnamese pilot who dropped the napalm -- napalm that killed two of her brothers instantly, one 3 years old and the other 9 months -- she would forgive him.

"If I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bomb, I would tell him we cannot change history but we should try to do things for the present and for the future to promote peace," she said.

Many of the veterans seemed awed by Phuc. They gave her a standing ovation at the beginning of her speech and afterwards. "I thank heaven she's alive," said Bill Ginn of Virginia, who was an Air Force colonel and pilot during the war. "She's right, war is hell and not particularly fair about who it picks to suffer the consequences."

Many others appreciated the ceremony's emphasis on reconciliation. "It's all about healing," said Anthony Judd, an Army veteran from Washington. "Not letting bygones be bygones, but putting the hostilities behind us."

Don Holland, a disabled veteran from southern New Jersey, praised her gesture.

"I think in spite of her personal tragedy to pay respects to those who tried to come to the aid of her country is to be commended," Holland said. "Most people find it easy to ignore the veterans rather than recognize them."

Holland was pointedly referring to the disappointment still felt by many of America's Vietnam veterans over their treatment at home and by their country's rapprochement with its former enemy. For some, that bitterness was not sweetened by Phuc's appearance. If she was a victim of the Vietnam War, some say, so are they.

"It means nothing," Harry Jantz, a one-time infantry sergeant now living in Long Island, said of Phuc's appearance. "This should be for us, what we fought for, and we got sh-- on by the United States."

His words were a reminder that whatever the symbols, the wounds of Vietnam have not yet healed.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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