The Marines landed in Caseyville at seventeen hundred thirty hours on 15 JAN 16.
Lou Zezoff, of Granite City, will never forget it.
“My wife Annette and I went out to dinner at Cracker Barrel,” Lou said a week and a half later, wearing the same “US Navy Vietnam Vet” cap he wore that evening. “When we were seated, I noticed five young men sitting at a round table. I knew they were military by their haircuts — high and tight.”
Lou and Annette ordered fried cod. It came with a side of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
After the Zezoffs finished ordering, the Marines sprang into action.
“One of the young men came over and stood at our table. I stood up and we were eyeball-to-eyeball,” Lou said. “He threw out his hand, thanking me for my service.”
A second one came did the same. “He said, ‘I’m thanking you for all five of us,’” motioning to the others.
Lou waved in acknowledgment, then went over to talk with them briefly.
Turns out, the Marines were on temporary duty for schooling at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. They had been to a Blues hockey game the night before and were about to go back. They weren’t in uniform.
“When the waiter came over after the meal, waving the check, he said, ‘This is your lucky day. Those young men bought your dinner.’
“I said, ‘Guys, you don’t have to do this.’ They were emphatic. They wanted you to know how much they appreciated you.”
Lou had four of the Marines write their names and phone numbers on the back of the bill: Kevin Morris, Val Diaz, Eric A. Morales, Victor M. Andrade Gomez, all Pfcs. (private first class). He didn’t get the name of the fifth Marine (Elijah Reynolds), who, Lou figured, was off paying the bill.
At the top of the receipt, one Marine wrote “SEMPER FI.” At the bottom, “OORAH!”
Lou thanked them right back and wished them luck in their future service.
As Lou and Annette were about to leave, four of the Marines lined up single-file at their table.
“One-by-one, they shook my hand, thanked me for my service again, gave me a hug and walked to the right. The third one gave me the snappiest, crispest salute I’ve ever seen.”
They walked out single file.
“The room got very quiet. Everyone was looking,” Lou said, dabbing a tear from the corner of his eye. “Sorry ... I still tear up when I talk about this. ...” Other people stood and applauded.
“My wife said, ‘Lou, you better sit down before we go, and catch your breath.’”
Reached at Fort Leonard Wood on Thursday, Pfc. Diaz explained why it was important for the Marines to show their respect for the Vietnam veteran.
“Yes, sir,” said the 21-year-old from Texas. “It was the right thing to do, sir. He fought for us. Now it’s our turn. It’s just part of our job, sir.”
Short on words. Long on politeness.
Lou’s wife Annette was moved by the scene.
“It just speaks volumes for the military. I thought of my son, who is retired Air Force, and the people who thank him for his service. It’s rewarding to see that the military is so strong and so polite.”
Last week, Lou called to tell me this story because “I can’t tell you how much this affected me,” he said. “These young men are such an asset to their country. They’re perfect ambassadors for the Marine Corps and their country.”
He also filled me in on his story.
Lou, 74, was raised in Granite City, and is the senior vice commander of Granite City VFW Post 1300.
Zezoff, he explained, is Macedonian.
“Macedonians didn’t give their kids middle names. That made it difficult in the Navy. I always had NMN (no middle name) in parentheses in the middle of my name on all documents.”
Lou was in the Navy from 1959 to 1963. His Vietnam service was on the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in 1961 and ’62.
Lou was an E5 (Petty Officer Second Class). He was designated a parachute rigger, but served as a plane captain on the carrier. He was responsible for a plane from pre-flight checks until it returned to the ship.
After the service, he served as a police officer for 32 years, first for Madison County, then as a detective for the SIUE police force in the 1970s. “Remember the Mississippi River Festival? That was my baby,” he said. Then he served in court security with the U.S. Marshal’s Service until he retired in 1996.
Lou and Annette went to Granite City High School, classes of ’59 and ’60, but they have been married only 3 1/2 years. Both were married before and their spouses died three days apart in 2009. Lou has one son; Annette three sons (one is deceased) and a daughter. They have seven grandchildren, including Chase Zezoff, who has been nominated by U.S. Rep. Mike Bost to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. He hasn’t decided yet. “He is fourth in his (Granite City) high school class of 444.”
Lou is happy to see the dedication to country in younger generations, including those coming to the VFW today.
“Now we have young men joining who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have the same camaraderie and dedication, the same loyalty to our country. They are really proud to have served.”
Just like Lou.
Now, maybe Lou should change his middle name to PTHS, as in “proud to have served.”