The dramatic statue of Marines raising the American flag at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial never gets old for Youth Tour bus driver Michael Anderson.

The proud Marine Corps vet has been with the Youth Tour group from Montana and North Dakota for about 15 years and gets almost as excited as his passengers when they arrive at the site in Arlington, Virginia.

“He absolutely loves getting off the bus at Iwo Jima and telling the kids the story and meaning behind the statue,” said Beckie Frediani, former Youth Tour coordinator at Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association in Great Falls. “And at the beginning of the tour, as soon as we get on the bus, he introduces himself to the kids, including his time in the Marines, and always ends with a big, hardy Semper Fi! There’s even a Semper Fi bumper sticker on his bus.”

It’s squadrons of stalwarts like Anderson who help ensure the Electric Cooperative Youth Tour, now in its 54th year, runs smoothly and is a memorable experience for the thousands of high-schoolers who make the journey to the nation’s capital. This year’s event, which ran June 13-21, included dozens of drivers, 250 chaperones and a dozen Youth Tour alumni who serve as “Blue Shirts” or staff assistants.

“NRECA’s Youth Tour program takes a village—literally,” said Beth Knudson, youth programs and training manager. “From state directors, to chaperones, to NRECA staff, to bus drivers and hotel employees...The passion all these people and groups have is what makes our program so incredible and life-changing for our delegates.”

For Youth Tour coordinators from around the country, pros like Anderson bring local flavor and another kind of “inside the Beltway” knowledge that’s priceless. So valued are his contributions—he’s a master navigator of D.C.-area traffic—the group books him his own hotel room and invites him along to a Washington Nationals baseball game.

“He helps us with our itinerary, and if we’re worried about sticking to our schedule, he makes it work,” said Leanne Phillips Hall, the Youth Tour director from Sun River Electric Cooperative in Fairfield, Montana. “Of course, we have some challenges trying to get 50 people from place to place on time in a big city, but because he’s with us, things go much more smoothly.”

It comes as no surprise that tight bonds have formed on all sides ever since Anderson joined Youth Tour when the Montana statewide association’s Sharon McDonald ran the event. “During my years with Michael, I have learned that he is a true patriot and Marine through and through,” said Frediani.

This year the youths wanted to do something extra special for Anderson’s annual thank-you gift from the Montana statewide association. Instead of sports gear for the die-hard baseball fan, the group decided to honor his military service.

Last year, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Anderson pointed out to the group the engraved bricks lining the winding pathways. “One of the students asked Michael where his brick was,” Frediani recalled. “He said he didn’t have one and thought maybe you had to have died to get one.”

Frediani made some phone calls. It turned out that anyone who served in the Marine Corps could have a brick for a donation to the museum. On this year’s stop at the museum, the Montana-North Dakota group presented Anderson with a certificate for his own brick.

The gesture moved Anderson, not just because it recognizes his 20 years of service, but also because it’s from his second family. Anderson, who’ll turn 68 soon, is retired, but he assured the co-ops that he’ll still take the wheel for his friends from out West.

“I love driving and I’ve been doing it for so long. So I can’t leave them behind. These kids are awesome,” said Anderson.

“He’s such an incredible person,” said Frediani. “He looks out for the kids and tells us local history. At the end of each trip, he’s crying, the kids are crying, and I’m crying.”