Thursday, November 09, 2006

Veterans Day & 'The Girl in the Picture'

Photo, Victim and Photographer: Kim Phuc and Nick Ut
I had the privilege of covering a good many big stories during a long newspaper career. The visit of a diminutive woman by the name of Phan Ti Kim Phuc to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Veterans Day 1996 would seem to pale in comparison to the Clinton impeachment circus or O.J. Simpson trials, to name two of the biggies, but it is one that I cherish.

I had been tipped that Ms. Phuc would be making a surprise appearance at the memorial during the annual Veterans Day ceremonies. Following is the story that I wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News about this event, which for me and many other people at The Wall that day completed a circle that had been broken for many, many years:
Daily News Staff Writer

Phan Thi Kim Phuc will always be the Girl in the Photograph.

Nine years old when her South Vietnamese village was bombed in 1972, she was photographed fleeing down Highway One from the ferocious napalm attack, the clothes burned off her reed-thin body, arms outstretched and face contorted into a silent, agonizing scream.

The powerful Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph seemed to represent all that had gone horribly wrong for the United States in Vietnam. Some say it hastened the end of the war.

Yesterday, after a remarkable personal odyssey, 32-year-old Kim Phuc (pronounced kim fook) stood before the long black slash that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and laid a wreath in memory of the 58,212 fallen American men and women whose names are inscribed on the sweeping granite wall.

Several thousand people, many of them former veterans in faded fatigues, looked on from the sweeping lawn below the Lincoln Memorial. Many had tears in their eyes. Some wept. The war was already all but lost on the day 24 years ago that an American commander ordered South Vietnamese Air Force planes to drop napalm on a Buddhist temple in the village of Trang Bang near Saigon.

Kim Phuc had crowded into the temple with other villagers thinking they'd be safe. The napalm attack burned her arms and shoulders to the bone. Her two younger brothers died instantly.

Bundled in a long coat against the autumn chill, Kim Phuc said yesterday that despite everything, she feels no anger.

"I do not want to talk about the war,'' she said, almost apologetically, before she and a retired Air Force colonel, a POW for six years after his fighter plane was shot down, carried a large wreath to the wall.

"I cannot change history,'' she explained in English. "Even if I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bomb, we could not change history. ''

Many in the crowd were surprised when she was introduced. The program for the Veterans Day ceremony had been printed before she decided to come.

Her appearance was a measure of the extent to which Americans have come to terms with a war that divided them. It does not seem likely Kim Phuc would have felt welcome, let alone be a guest of honor who received a sustained ovation, at a Veterans Day ceremony 10 or 15 years ago.

The first major national catharsis toward reconciling the Vietnam tragedy was construction of the memorial itself. Many others have popped up in Philadelphia and elsewhere as Viet vets gained a measure of respect initially denied many of them, and their fallen comrades came to be viewed as heroes no matter how wrong the war may have seemed to many Americans.

The Washington memorial, dedicated in 1982 after a firestorm of controversy over its starkly simple design and intentional lack of overtly military images, is now the most visited memorial in the nation's capital.

Finally, in 1995, 20 years after the war officially ended with the rooftop helicopter evacuation of diplomats from the American embassy in Saigon, the United States formally recognized the Communist Vietnamese government.

Despite two decades of anguish, guilt and bitterness and a president who had dodged the draft and protested the war, there was remarkably little political fallout. But reactions between the former adversaries have warmed slowly. The Hanoi government may still not have divulged all it knows about the fate of more than 2,000 Americans listed as missing, and members of MIA/POW groups were present yesterday to make sure that was not forgotten. Recently, Washington's interest in cultivating Vietnam as a trading partner has gotten the most attention. But American Viet vet groups have worked quietly and largely behind the scenes for rapproachement through contacts with former foes and Vietnamese allies.

It was through the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, which has worked to find and remove landmines and provide prosthetics for Vietnamese amputees, that arrangements were made for Kim Phuc to travel from Canada for the ceremony.

How she got from Trang Bang to Toronto is a story in itself. Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, who won the Pulitzer for his photo, and British television cameraman Alan Downes, who shot less well-known film footage of Kim Phuc that day, saved her life by rushing her to a military hospital.

After the Americans fled in defeat in 1975, she became a propaganda tool for the Communist regime, her burn scars a vivid reminder of the war to be shown to visiting foreign dignitaries along with downed fighter jets and captured artillery pieces.

Kim Phuc says she wanted to go to medical school when she grew older, but was relegated to a secretarial job at a provincial government office. She eventually received permission to attend college at the University of Havana. During six years of study and continuing therapy for her burns, she says she found Jesus, converted to Christianity, and met her future husband, a fellow Vietnamese.

Following a trip home, their plane stopped in Toronto. They defected and received asylum.

She told National Public Radio that while she had wanted to live in the United States, she felt the Vietnamese community here was too fractious politically, and was concerned she again would become a pawn.

<>The cosmopolitan Canadian city, with its large Asian community, seemed a better choice, and today she lives with her husband and their 2 1/2-year-old-son. But Kim Phuc keeps being reminded of her past.

She was invited to visit Los Angeles earlier this year for an exhibit of historic photographs, including Ut's famous shot. After numerous requests from journalists, she relented and allowed a Canadian documentary crew to film her life.

There is another reminder of who she is: The hideous scars from the crude battlefield surgery on her burns. She dreams in vain of being able to wear sleeveless shirts and dresses without feeling self conscious. And the scars, she said, are especially painful during the cold Toronto winters.

Kim Phuc has another dream, too, she explained, and you know she means it:

"I dream one day people all over the world can live in real peace.''

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Would you happen to remember when she gave that interview to NPR about wanting to move to the United States?