|NICK UT / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS|
I had the privilege of covering many big stories during a long newspaper career. The visit of a diminutive woman to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., some 23 years ago 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 the one that I most cherish.
Phan Thi Kim Phúc will always be the Girl in the Photograph.
JOE McNALLY / TIME-LIFENine years old when her South Vietnamese village was bombed in 1972, she was photographed by Nick Ut fleeing down Highway One from the devastating 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 Associated Press photograph seemed to represent all that was wrong for the U.S. in Vietnam. Some say it hastened the end of the war, which never made sense to me since the Kháng chiến chống Mỹ had been going on for 17 years and dragged on for another three.
I had been tipped by a memorial fundraiser that Kim Phúc (pronounced kim fook) would be making a surprise appearance during the annual Veterans Day ceremonies.
For me and many other people at The Wall that day, a circle that had been broken for too many years was completed with the climax of a remarkable personal odyssey as Kim Phúc stood before the slash and laid a wreath in memory of the 58,212 fallen American men and women who are inscribed on its sweeping black granite wall.
Several thousand people, many of them 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 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 Phúc 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 Phúc told me in excellent English with a trace of an accent (she had been living in Toronto) 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.
Many in the crowd were surprised when Kim Phúc was introduced. The program for the Veterans Day ceremony had been printed before she decided to accept the invitation from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, which has worked to find and remove landmines and provide prosthetics for Vietnamese amputees.
Her appearance was a measure of the extent to which Americans have come to terms with a war that so divided them. It does not seem likely that she would have felt welcome, let alone be a guest of honor who received a sustained ovation, at a Veterans Day ceremony 15 or 20 years ago.
"I cannot change history, Kim Phúc said. "Even if I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bomb, we could not change history."