By Burt Graeff

Vail resident Bob Reuter called it the trip of a lifetime. And, no, it was not a trip to Paris. Or Rome. Or Barcelona. It was a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., where 23 Southern Arizona veterans of World War Two, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War were afforded the opportunity to visit and learn about the memorials built in their honor. “We could not have been treated any better,’’ said Reuter, 83, a Navy veteran who served in the Korean Conflict. “It was an amazing, amazing experience.”

Reuter and the other veterans made this trip at no cost thanks to Honor Flight Southern Arizona, a hub of the Honor Flight Network (HFN). HFN receives no government assistance; private donations fund the veterans’ trips. The trips take place twice a year out of the Tucson International Airport (TIA). The trip in late September originated at TIA, and stopped off in Dallas en route to Baltimore, where the veterans’ plane was welcomed with the local fire department hosing it down.

Among the memorials visited in Washington, D.C.: the World War Two Memorial; the Iwo Jima Memorial; the FDR Memorial; and Arlington National Cemetery, where the veterans witnessed the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “Arlington National Cemetery is mind-boggling,’’ Reuter said. “There are more than 400,000 buried there (on 625 acres).” The 23 veterans on this trip each had a guardian. Reuter’s was Tucson native Tim Chartier. “He was great,’’ Reuter said. “He wrote me a very nice letter after the trip. He said I reminded him of his dad.”

For years, critics have said the American veterans have not gotten their due. That they have not been appreciated for their service to the United States. Honor Flight Arizona has done a lot to change all this. “Wherever we went,’’ Reuter said, “people were clapping, reaching out to shake our hands. I had people wanting my autograph!”

Reuter, a native of Moline, IL who moved to the Tucson area in 1972, said nothing topped the reception the veterans received on their return to TIA. “I thought there would be about 10-15 people to greet us when we returned home,’’ Reuter said. “There must have been 500 to 1,000.” The Salpointe High School football team was there, waiving tiny American flags. “People wanted to hold you, to hug you, to do anything to thank you for your service. There were so many people, it was hard to navigate through them. It was overwhelming.”

Those veterans interested in applying for the Honor Flight can go on-line to the Honor Flight Application at https://www.honorflight.org/applications/

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