Kim Phuc lived through hell. Today, she's found heaven on Earth.
Ms. Phuc, who will speak tomorrow morning at Liberty Baptist Church in Toledo, was 9 years old and living in Trang Bang, Vietnam, when American troops bombed her village on June 8, 1972.
Napalm hit the pagoda where she and her family had sought refuge. The fiery attack scorched Ms. Phuc's back and legs and burned the clothes off her body. Wracked with pain and fear, she ran naked and screaming from the scene and was photographed by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. The photograph, which won a Pulitzer Prize, quickly became an indelible reminder of the horrors of war.
"People tell me, 'You are living history' because my picture is in the history books," Ms. Phuc (pronounced "fook") said from her home near Toronto. "Whenever people talk about the Vietnam War they remember that picture.
"But I say the second part is I am not only living history, but I am a living miracle."
Mr. Ut, moved by compassion, took the girl to a South Vietnamese hospital for treatment. She then spent another 14 months recovering at Barsky Hospital, the American medical facility in Saigon.
The burns covered 65 percent of her body and Ms. Phuc said she nearly died several times.
But the intense physical pain was only part of the suffering.
"I was living many years with hatred, with anger, bitterness. All the bad things that happened to me, I didn't understand. Why me? I became another kind of victim. I grow up and I suffer with emotional pain."
She despised her life, she said, and wanted to die.
"I hated my life. I hated everyone who was normal because I was not normal. And living with that is really like hell in this life. I have no hope. No dream. No nothing. And how come? Deep down in my heart, I seeking the truth. I seeking the answer all the time, 'Why me?'•"
The Vietnamese government forced her to speak in public about the horrors of war and her American attackers, using her for propaganda purposes, she said.
Ms. Phuc, now 45, spoke gently and clearly in imperfect English, laughing frequently during the interview.
When she was 19, she said, Vietnamese authorities barred her from continuing her education, so she studied on her own at a library in Saigon, 30 miles south of her village.
She turned to her family's Buddhism and also looked at other religions in her search for peace and understanding.
"I believe in Buddha a long time. They borrow a little bit here, a little bit there, and everything they combine together," Ms. Phuc said. "And I pray to too many gods - to Buddha, to Hindu, to the river, the ocean, the mountain, ancestors who are dead in the family. But no answer. I still suffering. I was still bitter, still angry, and I wanted to die."
Things started to change when she picked up a copy of the New Testament, written in Vietnamese, at the library.
"Of course the more I read, the more question I have. When I got to John 14:6, and I read that Jesus say, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man can come to heaven but by me,' then I was really confused and wonder what was true because my religion combine everything!"
She knew one Christian, she said, her brother-in-law's cousin, and when he visited she asked him many questions about Jesus and Christianity. He invited her to church.
"It took many, many months. I couldn't change my faith because my faith was very strong, I was very devoted," she said. "But why did Jesus say that? What was true, my religion or Jesus? Because of that curiosity, I seeking and seeking and seeking and I try. And I got it!"
She said she became a Christian on Christmas Day, 1982.
"That is the point, an amazing turning point in my life. I'm not talking about religion but I'm talking about relationships. I put my heart right with God. I confess my sins and he gave me faith through Jesus Christ. For me, in my heart, I felt joy."
Ms. Phuc said the pain from the napalm attack has never gone away.
"It's a fact I still endure a lot of pain. I got that really deep burn in my left side, my back, and my leg. My nerve is really damaged. It is a challenge for me. But I thank God he helped me and that is a reminder of the past. When I have any pain, I come to the Lord and pray and the more I pray, the more I have peace," she said.
The emotional and spiritual healing has made all the difference, she said.
"I know that when I die any time, heaven is my home. And I feel so safe. When I found the answers, there is a heaven on Earth for me."
Ms. Phuc defected to Canada in 1986 with her future husband, Bui Huy Toan. They were married in 1992 and have two children, Thomas, 14, and Stephen, 11. Ms. Phuc, who attends a Baptist church, said her parents live nearby and that all her family is Christian.
She keeps in touch with Mr. Ut, the photographer, talking to him every week in Los Angeles, where he still works for the Associated Press, Ms. Phuc said. "I call him Uncle Ut."
In 1997, she founded the Kim Phuc Foundation to help child victims of war around the globe.
Kim Phuc will speak at the 11 a.m. service tomorrow at Liberty Baptist Church, 5501 Jackman Rd. More information is available online at www.kimfoundation.com.
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