WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — A Kansas Air Force retiree was overcome with emotions when he saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during his Honor Flight visit to Washington.

“It just hurts, it just hurts so much,” Air Force retiree Dave Cottrell said. “It’s like it tore part of me out. It felt almost like when I left him behind.”

He knows too many of the names etched in stone, heroes like Paul Vanderboom, Jr.

“It’s like it tears my heart out,” Cottrell said. “I lost some very good friends.”

William Wright is another friend who never made it home from the war. Cottrell said it was those trying to dodge the draft that encouraged him to step up.

“Things were going on that I didn’t feel like was right,” he said.

He was just 19 when he made a life-changing decision.

“It’s like it tears my heart out. I lost some very good friends.”

Air Force retiree Dave Cottrell

“I enlisted in the United States Air Force.”

Cottrell went on to become a flight mechanic, primarily on C-130s.

“It afforded me the opportunity to see so many different places, so many different people, and to understand different cultures,” he said.

His time in the Air Force spanned 23 years, so he also served during Desert Storm, working with NORAD.

“I was controlling the fighters throughout, you know, the war zone,” Cottrell said.

After serving in two war zones, he knows there are still raw emotions he needs to process.

“It brought back a lot of things I think I wanted to keep buried,” Cottrell said.

He’s not alone. The Honor Flight gives veterans a chance to travel with others who truly understand sacrifice.

“There are things we don’t talk about, but the look in their eye and you can share, you know.”

The veterans are united by what they endured and in their respect for those who will forever be memorialized on the wall.

“It is so hard to come and see my brothers that I lost,” Cottrell said.

Decades after the young men were in a war zone, some found closure.

“The Honor Flight, I am so honored that they brought me out here to witness this,” Cottrell said.

The trip also allowed Cottrell and the others to see that their service is appreciated.

When the veterans returned to Wichita, they were met with a patriotic show of support from a large crowd that had gathered. For the Vietnam veterans, it was the welcome home they never got decades ago.

Cottrell said he will never forget the Honor Flight trip and hopes many others get this opportunity.

“You need to see and experience this,” he said.

He gave his guardian a lot of credit for her help that allowed him to experience such a memorable trip.

The Honor Flight Cottrell was on was the last one of 2021. However, organizers say they are planning to have more trips next year, starting in May.

To learn more about the program, click on Kansas Honor Flight.