Ten years ago, people all over the world--and especially Americans--were shaken by an Associated Press photo of a tiny girl lying in a C-ration box in Saigon.
She was 3 years old and weighed 12 pounds. She and her brother had been set out in the street by their beggar mother.
It was one of those images you could never wipe from your mind. It was the tragedy of war. It was Vietnam.
Yesterday the same girl came skipping down the walk at the White House and met the president. She asked him his grandson's name and gave the first lady a white carnation. Then, while the press corps recorded every move, she and her adoptive mother, Evelyn Warren Heil of Springfield, Ohio, went into the Oval Office with the Reagans to meet Chick Harrity, the man who took the original photo.
Nhanny, or Nhan Martha Frances Heil, is 12 years old now and blooming with health. Nhan is Vietnamese for "a thousand blessings." She got a jar of jellybeans and a pin from the president, who had invited her to Washington. Her mother got two $5,000 checks from insurance magnate W. Clement Stone to help the Warren Center of Learning in Springfield where Evelyn Heil, a retired teacher, has been educating the girl and 13 other children with learning problems.
It had been a long day for Nhanny. She was so excited she slept only two hours the night before, and after landing in Washington yesterday morning it had been one thing after another.
"How do you feel?" reporters asked her in a brief meeting afterward.
"Sleepy," she said. She put her head on her mother's shoulder. She wants to go to the zoo, she said. The two of them are staying with a former teacher at the school who moved here from Ohio. They will go home tomorrow after a visit to Mount Vernon. The trip was paid for by a magazine that featured Nhanny's story.
When American donations brought her out of Vietnam to Houston for heart surgery, Nhanny suffered from malnutrition, shrapnel wounds and burn scars, badly infected ears, rotted teeth. Heil saw the famous picture and, though she has four children of her own, began a three-year campaign to adopt the child.
Nhanny's brother, the one in the photo, was killed at Da Nang, it was said. The woman she called "Old Mom" had died of tuberculosis. With constant home care, Nhanny put on weight at last. She learned to sleep without waking up screaming every few minutes. Her broken eardrums were mended by surgery. The ugly depression in the left side of her skull, a result of the years of lying in the box, disappeared.
But her hearing was still impaired, affecting her speech and learning ability, so local schools labeled her "educably mentally retarded." And that made Evie Heil mad. She founded a school of her own, pouring into it all her savings and retirement money and energy and time. Her marriage broke up in 1977.
Now the school is foundering, having just missed out on a $50,000 city grant, but she is hoping to revive it. "I flatly refuse to allow this to drop," she said. "These kids have had a taste of what it means to succeed . . ."
Nhanny nestled closer to her and yawned. She doesn't like to think about Vietnam right now, her mother said, but that will come later, that and the full knowledge of her heritage.
The president looked just like he does on TV, Nhanny said.
"He has blue eyes," she said. "Like the blue sky."