From faith to forgiveness to freedom: Kim Phuc and her endurance of spirit

By Alex Veitch '15

This past October, the Global Initiatives Alliance invited to campus an influential and world-famous woman whose message of forgiveness is a beacon of hope for those scarred by conflict and war. Kim Phuc, the “napalm girl,” helped turn the tide against the Vietnam War when she was caught by crossfire between Northern and Southern Vietnamese Armies in June of 1972; the photograph that exposed her suffering on the international stage won a Pulitzer Prize and galvanized thousands behind a revitalized anti-war effort.

Phuc shared her story for students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumni from the Polytechnic and Westridge communities. Middle and Upper School students alike amazedly followed her path to forgiveness and were astonished by the depth of her faith in a peaceful, tolerant future. Guests eagerly asked questions about her family and her love for them as tools of reconciliation. Phuc’s warmth and humor in the presence of trauma was truly an inspiration for all who heard her speak, especially those unfamiliar with Vietnam itself and its complex war whose victims are often forgotten.

On Wednesday, Oct. 22, Kim Phuc began her extended engagement with the Polytechnic and Westridge communities by speaking to the assembled Poly Middle School in the morning and concluding with Westridge students in the afternoon. She was set to meet for lunch with Poly seniors in the Global Initiatives Program, but was unable to attend due to health problems. Phuc, whose upper body lacks sweat glands as a result of her surgeries, suffers from headaches and fatigue that are exacerbated by her busy schedule. Instead, the Global Scholars met with “Uncle” Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer who saved Phuc’s life and took the famous picture.

Ut shared stories of war photography and the widespread trauma suffered during the Vietnam War. The inspiration for his career as a war photographer was the death of his brother, a South Vietnamese movie star turned photographer who was killed on the battlefield. Ut also highlighted the tenuous interplay between documentarian responsibility and discretion. He never photographed any dead bodies, for instance, because they elicited the wrong emotions in a viewer. Students were surprised to hear him lament the loss of independence in war journalism. Since the Vietnam War, American forces realized the potential anti-war sentiment that war correspondents could create. As a result, during more recent conflicts, very few journalists have been granted permits to visit war zones, much to the dismay of many like Ut: “Kim Phuc could never happen today,” he sighed.

The following evening, Phuc graced the Garland stage with her story, her levity, and her forgiveness. The event was highly anticipated: Tickets offered to the extended Poly and Westridge communities sold out within hours. Present to introduce Phuc were Heads of School John Bracker of Poly and Elizabeth McGregor of Westridge, who emphasized her empathy, compassion, and conviction in a joint speech. Seniors Alex Veitch and Lucy Grindon of Poly and Westridge, respectively, presented a contextual overview of the evening’s events. Finally, Phuc took the podium and immediately engaged the audience with her lightheartedness, joking that once on television “I made [Oprah] cry. But, Oprah cry a lot (sic).”

Phuc began her story during her carefree youth in the midst of conflict, juxtaposing the innocuous innocence of her childhood with the malignancy of war. She wept while expressing the pain inflicted by the napalm on her family and her body. She demonstrated with a glass of black coffee the process by which her heart was emptied of hatred and filled with forgiveness. Many in the audience held back tears when she rolled up the sleeves of her ornate ao dai to exhibit her two arms—one pristine, one scarred—and told of how her young son Thomas kissed her wounds, asking “Why Mommy hurt?” Furthermore, everyone applauded when she spoke about her work as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and her commitment to the maxim “that forgiveness is more powerful than any weapon of war.” Most importantly, though, Phuc left her listeners with a challenge to view her picture in a new light: “When you see the little girl running up the road, and you see her crying, yelling out, try not to see her as crying out in fear and pain. Try to see her as crying out for peace.”

The following morning, Phuc concluded her visit to Pasadena with a final trip to Garland to speak with Poly Upper School students. After recounting her story once more, she opened her speech into a dialogue with students, encouraging them to ask questions. Many among them were inspired by her openness. Senior and Global Scholar Megan Tcheng wrote of Kim’s visit that “For me, the most important takeaway from [her] speech was the idea of perseverance. Kim never gave up on her life and never let go of her right to an independent life. I can only hope that in my future endeavors, I'll be able to channel some of Kim Phuc's grace and inner-strength.”

Indeed, for many students Kim shall remain the most influential and heartrending speaker of their time at Poly, an embodiment of the qualities fostered within our vibrant community. Kim Phuc’s visits to Poly shall not be soon forgotten. Her faith in a future filled with love and peace for all people is a testament to the strength of body and mind, a shining golden standard that will forever provide students with vitality of spirit.

Photos courtesy of Blaine Ohigashi '09
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