"If there was one photograph that captured the horrific nature of the Vietnam war, one photograph that tore at our collective conscience, it was the picture of a nine year old girl, running naked down a road, screaming in agony from the jellied gasoline coating her body and burning through skin and muscle down the bone. Her village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam was napalmed that day on June 8,1972, and the little girl took a direct hit. It would take many years, and 17 operations to save her life."
Most of us live out our lives in relative obscurity. When we have hurt another, when we have failed, when we have grievously wounded it is kept in a small closed circle. But imagine if the thing you most regret were to be splashed across the front page of every newspaper in the world. Imagine if that one dread moment became the thing that defined you. John Plummer doesn’t need to imagine. It happened to him.
John Plummer is a Methodist pastor living in a quiet town in Virginia. He visits the elderly, prays for the sick and preaches every Sunday. But this is not what defines him. Or at least, what once did.
John Plummer is also the pilot that, during the Vietnam War, organized the Napalm raid on the village of Trang Bang in 1972. And what he did was forever immortalized by the award-winning photograph of one of its victims, a nine-year-old girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc.
John was haunted by the photo of the naked burning child, terrified and running, her arms
stretched out, her flesh afire. He had done that to her. For twenty- four years he looked for her, trying everything he could just so that he could tell her that he had not meant this dreadful thing. It was more than wanting. It was a need that ate away at him until he lost his wife and his health and his hope.
His friends reached out to help him. They reminded him that he had tried to make sure that as many innocent people as possible had been removed from the area. He had done it for a greater good. None of these things meant anything. Her face condemned him. There was no peace for a man like him.
And then it happened. One of those amazing moments that non-believers speak of as coincidence and those who know the Father know as His merciful grace. It was Veterans Day, 1996. John, along with a group of fellow pilots, had traveled to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Officially they were there to honor those who had given their lives. But each man knew that every year they went hoping for a measure of freedom from the guilt that haunted them.
The crowd gathered at the memorial hushed as a small woman took the stage and spoke into the microphone and said "I am Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the girl made famous by a photograph after suffering a Napalm attack by American forces"
John froze. He could not take it in. For twenty- four years he had longed for her and she was now so near. Her voice continued " I am not bitter, even though the burns I suffered even to this day cause me pain. I long ago forgave the one who bombed our village"
John was beside himself, yelling, pushing his way through the crowd. Security surrounded him but he persisted. "I am the one!" he shouted "I am the man who did this to you!" She came down from the stage, the only one who could free him and he fell into her arms. For every time he sobbed out " I am so sorry" her voice rose to cover his. "It is OK. I have forgiven you".
Phan invited John to meet her at her hotel later that evening. Sitting side by side she once again assured him of her forgiveness. In her grace she had set him free. In one encounter she had ended twenty four years of anguish for a man who had longed for release.
I thank my brother Mike for reminding us of 8 June 1972
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