Painful past helps pair forge unique friendship

Dao Thi Minh Van hugs Carlton Walker at Charleston International Airport after arriving from Vietnam on Wednesday. Walker was part of a documentary in Vietnam that Van saw, and she decided to meet Walker as part of a trip to the United States.

She flew 36 hours from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to meet the American whose story touched her heart.

He waited outside a Charleston International Airport security line hoping their meeting will bridge scars from the past.

A unique union unfolded outside the airport's B Concourse on Wednesday as North Charleston resident Carlton Walker, 38, son of a Vietnam War veteran, bent down to hug tiny Dao Thi Minh Van, whose father was a communist spy chief killed during the war. How the pair met is a tale for the history books.

In 2007, Walker traveled to Vietnam to visit the exact site in the country's southern hills where his father's best friend died in a helicopter crash. He won the trip based on sales he made for a national cutlery company and wanted to trace his father's wartime footsteps.

As Walker tells the story, the scout chopper his father's buddy was piloting on that March 1971 day took ground fire and crashed in flames. It was just before the pilot was to go home.

The trauma of witnessing his friend's death has affected Walker's father, fellow chopper pilot Lance Cross, ever since.

While in Vietnam, Walker's story became part of an award-winning Vietnamese documentary — "The Young Man From America" — about a son trying to understand the emotional toll the war took on his father, whom Walker says fell out of the young boy's life for 20 years afterward. Van, 61, saw the documentary on TV and wanted to meet Walker as part of a far-reaching trip to the U.S.

Van speaks little English. In the moments after she landed in Charleston following a flight from Dallas, she declined to say much about her father, who was killed by Americans in 1969. She'd only reveal he was a hero of the Vietnamese people, worked at the higher levels of intelligence, fought the Japanese and the French as well, and went by different nicknames.

"From my heart, I think I make new friendships," she said of her expectations here.

Walker, who grew up on James Island, is doing his own history project. He's drafted a screenplay of his father's story in the 1st Squadron of the 9th Calvary's E Troop, hoping to draw Hollywood interest. He's calling it "The Last Time I Saw America" and is promoting his efforts on www.thelasttime isawAmerica.com.

Tracing the pair's linkup Wednesday was the Vietnamese documentary's producer and a journalist from a Ho Chi Minh City newspaper.

As the schedule goes, Walker and Van will tour Charleston for several days before moving on to appointments elsewhere in the U.S. While in America, Van's will try to research what led to her father's wartime death at American hands, Walker said. In the meantime, the two are trying to forge a friendship.

"It goes back to we're both human, and we both lost a loved one," he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or skropf@postandcourier.com.