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2 Powerful Images of Vietnam War's Pain Come to Life at Special Reunion

October 22, 1995|GEORGE ESPER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

JEFFERSONVILLE, N.Y. — You might remember a younger Kim Phuc. In the historic picture, she is 9, running naked down a highway, her body burning with napalm. Behind her are soldiers and ominous clouds of smoke, symbols of the darkness of war.

A second indelible photo stemming from that same war is of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway whose flight took her by chance to Kent State University during anti-war demonstrations in May, 1970. She is kneeling over the body of one of four students shot to death by Ohio National Guardsmen, her arms outstretched as she cries.

Twenty years after the end of the Vietnam War, at his annual October workshop for aspiring photographers, photographer Eddie Adams reunited Phuc and Vecchio with the two men who took their Pulitzer Prize-winning pictures.

The 100 photographers who gathered in the Catskill Mountains gave Phuc and Vecchio standing ovations as they talked--sometimes in tears--about the photos.

"They're both victims for different reasons," said Adams, whose picture of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong soldier in broad daylight also won a Pulitzer. "I wanted the photographs to come alive. . . . The photos are impersonal. You bring the subjects here and it's like history coming alive."

Phuc, now 32, said it had always been her hope to come to the United States so she could help people better understand what happened to her and others like her around the world.

"With that picture, it changed the world," she said. "And also it changed my life too. As you know, I suffered a lot. God gives me strong faith, and I can live throughout that."

Now, she lives with her husband and their 18-month-old son in Toronto--on welfare--and studies computer science. The Communist government in Vietnam exploited her for propaganda purposes and sent her to Cuba in 1986; she had been studying pharmacology there until she defected to Canada in 1992. Her left arm and back are still disfigured by the burns and numerous skin grafts she received.

The workshop marked Phuc's first visit to the United States and her second meeting in six years with Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer who took the photo in 1972 and then saved her life by getting her to a hospital. Ut now is assigned to the AP's Los Angeles bureau.

The prize-winning picture of Vecchio was taken by John Filo, a photojournalism student at Kent State, using a borrowed camera. He most recently worked at Newsweek.

When the shooting started on campus, Vecchio remembers "just all the blood, all the blood, and all the shock with the people. So I ran away and I never knew my picture was taken. . . . I knew my life was pretty messed up over it. . . . How do you have a normal life after something like that?"

Vecchio kept running--both from her home in Miami and from the photo. She received hate mail and death threats because of her anti-war stance; she pleaded no contest to a prostitution charge when she was 17.

Now, as she approaches her 40th birthday, she has found peace. She married a plumber in 1979, and works as a cashier in a Las Vegas casino coffee shop.

For the first time, she is able to talk about the photo. "People like to hear me," she said. "Now, they know who I am."

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