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Embrace Silences Decades of Nightmares for Ex-Pilot

Vietnam: Girl in famous war photograph meets man who sent bombers to her village. Her forgiveness is balm for his guilt-ravaged soul.

April 20, 1997|ANNE GEARAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PURCELLVILLE, Va. — In Rev. John Plummer's nightmare, the picture flashed huge, in black and white, as children screamed.

You have seen this picture. A 9-year-old Vietnamese girl, her clothes incinerated by napalm, flees an American-led assault on her village. A brutal image from a brutal war, it is imprinted on the American psyche.

It is imprinted on John Plummer's psyche for more personal reasons.

One day in June 1972, he ordered bombers to rain fire on the village of Trang Bang. At the time, it was just another attack on another collection of faceless foes. But then he saw the picture of Kim Phuc.

For decades, Plummer struggled with his conscience. He drank and divorced. He searched for God.

"It took a long time, but I came to realize I would never have any peace unless I could talk to her," Plummer said. "I had to look in her eyes and say how sorry I am."

So last autumn, Plummer went to Washington to hear Kim address the Veterans Day observance at the black granite monument that bears the name of each American who never came home from war a generation ago.

"If I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bombs," he heard her say, "I would tell him we cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace."

Plummer gasped. It was as though she was speaking directly to him.

Plummer scribbled a note: "Kim, I am that man." He asked a police officer to carry it to her. Then Plummer pushed through the crowd toward Kim, and one fleeting chance to end the screaming in his dreams.

*

Plummer was 24 in June 1972, a gung-ho helicopter pilot and operations officer in the waning months of the Vietnam War. His main job was to order allied bombing strikes.

The June 8 strike on Trang Bang came off just as Plummer had planned. South Vietnamese bombers smoothly dropped heavy explosives and napalm canisters on the village 25 miles west of Saigon. The American advisor in the village thanked Plummer by radio.

"It was over. I was pleased everything worked, everything had gone right," Plummer said. "I dusted off my hands and went back to work."

On a road outside the village, Kim and her brother ran screaming toward the camera of Associated Press photographer Nick Ut.

"It was at breakfast the next morning when I first saw it, bam, on the front page" of the military newspaper Stars & Stripes, Plummer said.

Plummer looked at that picture and saw the anguished face of a little boy about his son's age. Behind the boy he saw Kim Phuc.

The jellied gasoline has burned off her clothes. Her eyes are screwed shut, her mouth spread wide in terror and uncomprehending pain. Her arms flap awkwardly, as though she does not recognize them as her own.

It took a moment for Plummer to understand the caption. He had twice been told that there were no civilians in the village, only soldiers.

"It just knocked me to my knees," Plummer said. "And that was when I knew I could never talk about this. I mean, how can I ever explain to people that I did everything I could to make sure there were no civilians?"

To his war buddies, there was no need to explain.

"Their reaction was just that, 'Hey, there's a war on. War hurts people, including sometimes civilians,' " he said.

But then he went home, to a troubled marriage and a thousand new distractions. Although a day rarely passed when he did not think of the photograph, he kept his thoughts to himself.

Plummer estimates he told the story of Trang Bang and the photograph fewer than 10 times over the next 24 years.

*

Through his successful career as a military and civilian flight instructor, through three marriages and two divorces, the picture confronted Plummer in wakefulness and in sleep.

The picture accompanied Plummer as he drank too much booze that did too little to help him forget.

It also accompanied him on the day seven years ago when Plummer, until then a regular if unenthusiastic churchgoer, committed his life to God.

Tears shine in Plummer's eyes when he describes his religious awakening.

"I realized I did not have to bear the guilt of my sins--all the hurt I caused other people," Plummer said.

He resolved to be a better husband to his third wife and a better father to his four children. Soon he resolved to make a new life entirely, leaving his job with a defense contractor for a career as a minister.

Plummer carried a middle-aged man's scars and lessons with him to the pulpit of Bethany United Methodist Church.

"My life makes plenty of good sermon material," Plummer said ruefully. "It adds validity to my ministry. When I talk about the evils of divorce, they know I know what I'm talking about. When I talk about the evils of alcohol, they know I know about that too."

He preaches often about regret and more often about hope.

Until last fall, he did not preach about Kim Phuc.

"That was the one burden God elected not to take from me," he said.

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