Lou Zezoff of Granite City, Illinois, went out to eat at a Cracker Barrel with his wife Annette while wearing his "US Navy Vietnam Veteran" cap. After being seated, Lou noticed five young men sitting at a nearby table. Little did he know, they noticed him and his hat too, and they were going to make this one evening he'd never forget.
After Lou and his wife ordered, the young men sprung into action. One of them came over and stood at Lou's table. "I stood up," Lou recalled as he came eyeball-to-eyeball with the guy. The young man threw out his hand, thrusting it in Lou's direction. "I knew they were military by their haircuts — high and tight," Lou said, explaining how he knew they were service members even though they weren't in uniform.
They were Marines, and the first man to approach Lou wanted to thank him for his service. But, the group was just getting started. As the first man returned to his table, another got up and walked over to Lou. Once again, the veteran stood up. The second young man said, "I want to thank you for all five of us," motioning to the others.
Lou nodded in acknowledgment, and they talked briefly. After expressing his appreciation and wishing them well with their military careers, Lou returned to his meal, thinking that was the end of it. They finished their dinner, then Lou gestured to their waiter for the check. Waving the bill with a big smile on his face, the waiter said, "This is your lucky day."
The young Marines had bought Lou's meal. On the receipt, one of them wrote "Semper Fi" across the top with an "Oorah!" at the bottom. The veteran, completely taken by surprise, immediately got up, went over, and put his arm around one of the guys. "You don't have to do this. I know, being in the military, you don't make a lot of money," Lou told them, insisting their acknowledgment of his service was enough, but the Marines stood firm.
"They wanted me to know how much they appreciated me," Lou said. Thankful, he returned to his table to get his jacket as the Marines also got up to leave. Knowing they were about to part ways, the young men decided to give the veteran one last show of respect.
While the fifth man was off paying the bill, the other four filed in front of Lou's table and extended their hand to shake the veteran's one last time, he recalled, admitting he tears up talking about it. Each thanked and hugged him, one by one. By the third guy, Lou said he was "a basket case." As he described the incident, tears again filled his eyes.
The low chatter of other patrons that once filled the room was replaced with an unusual quiet as onlookers watched the Marines' conduct. After the fourth Marine gave Lou "the sharpest salute" he'd ever seen, they turned and walked out, leaving Lou in "awe" and feeling the deepest gratitude for the men who so emphatically expressed their appreciation for his service. He turned to his wife, who said he better sit down and catch his breath after the moving moment.
According to Belleville News, the five Marines were identified as Kevin Morris, Val Diaz, Eric A. Morales, Victor M. Andrade Gomez, and Elijah Reynolds — all private first class. When reached for comment, they simply said it was the right thing to do. "He fought for us. Now it's our turn," Pfc. Diaz said, explaining why he felt it was so important to show respect for the Vietnam veteran.
Lou Zezoff served in the Navy from 1959 to 1963. During Vietnam, Lou, an E5 (Petty Officer Second Class), served on the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in 1961 and ’62. Although he was designated a parachute rigger, he served as a plane captain on the carrier, responsible for a plane from its pre-flight checks until it returned to the ship.
When Lou returned to civilian life, he continued to serve as a police officer for 32 years. He became a detective in the 1970s, then later worked court security with the U.S. Marshal’s Service before retiring in 1996. At 74 years old, he serves as the senior vice commander of Granite City VFW Post 1300.
Lou Zezoff's encounter with the Marines reminds us how important it is to show our appreciation for those who have served and how even a small gesture can make a big impact. Respect and gratitude are the least we can give the brave men and women who risk their lives for our freedoms and protection. Their commitment to our nation came with great sacrifice, enduring distance from their loved ones and trauma we can only imagine. Like these Marines, we should be grateful and acknowledge what our veterans have done for us all.