You have probably seen my picture a thousand times. Yes, that picture. The image that made the world gasp. Some called it a turning point in the Vietnam War—a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of me in 1972, age 9, running along a puddled roadway in front of an expressionless soldier. I was photographed with arms outstretched, naked and shrieking in pain and fear, with the dark contour of a napalm cloud billowing in the distance.
My own people had dropped bombs on Route 1 in an effort to cut off the trade routes for the Viet Cong rebels. I had not been targeted. I had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Those bombs have caused me immeasurable pain over the course of my life. Forty-five years later I am still receiving treatment for the burns that cover my arms, back and neck. But even worse than the physical pain was the emotional and spiritual pain. For years I bore the crippling weight of anger, bitterness and resentment toward those who caused my suffering. Yet as I look back over a spiritual journey that has spanned more than three decades, I realize the same bombs that caused so much pain and suffering also brought me to a place of great healing. Those bombs led me to Jesus Christ.
My salvation experience occurred on Christmas Eve. It was 1982. I was attending a special worship service at a small church in Vietnam. The pastor, Ho Hieu Ha, delivered a message many Christians would find familiar: Christmas is not about the gifts we carefully wrap and place under a tree. Rather, it is about the gift of Jesus Christ, who was wrapped in human flesh and given to us by God. As the pastor spoke, I knew in my heart that something was shifting inside of me.
A decade removed from the defining tragedy of my life, I still desperately needed peace. I had so much hatred and bitterness in my heart. Yet I was ready for love and joy. I wanted to let go of my pain. I wanted to pursue life instead of holding fast to fantasies of death. When Pastor Ho finished speaking, I stood up, stepped out into the aisle, and made my way to the front of the sanctuary to say “yes” to Jesus Christ.
When I woke up that Christmas morning, I experienced my first-ever heartfelt celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I know what it is like to experience terror, to feel despondent, to live in fear. I know how wearying and hopeless life can be sometimes. After years in the spiritual wilderness, I felt the kind of healing that can only come from God.
I had spent so much of my life running—first from the bombs and the war, then from communist Vietnam. I had always assumed that to flee was my only choice. Looking back, I understand the path I had been racing along led me straight to God. Today I live at ease. Yes, my circumstances can still be challenging. But my heart is 100% healed.
My faith in Jesus Christ is what has enabled me to forgive those who had wronged me—no matter how severe those wrongs were. Faith also inspired me to pray for my enemies rather than curse them. It enabled me not only to tolerate those who had wronged me but to love them.
No matter what type of pain or sorrow you may be experiencing, as Christmas approaches, I encourage you not to give up. Hold fast to hope. It is hope that will see you through. This peace I have found can be yours as well. I pray that it finds you this Christmas."