Zackery Gates, owner of Lasaters Coffee & Tea, greeted family members with a happy, albeit perplexed, smile as they made their way into the coffee shop.
No one mentioned the reason for their collective visit.
“Usually one or two will come at a time, but not all together,” Zack said. “So that was nice.”
Family members milled around the shop’s fireplace while waiting for the small company’s final member, U.S. Air Force Capt. Nicholas Poe.
His arrival was met with eagerness as he promptly presented an American flag to Zack, an Army veteran.
According to Poe, the flag was professionally folded at Chattanooga National Cemetery. It was placed inside of a double frame along with a certificate detailing the flag’s history. Poe said the flag was flown over Bagram, Afghanistan, in the back of his C-130.
These presentations are sometimes made to small business owners who are also veterans. Poe initially had the idea almost a year ago when he met Zack. The two began talking and Zack revealed he owned and operated a coffee shop.
“It is a way to help a fellow veteran; someone who had a tough time over there,” Poe said. “I’ve been [to the Middle East] several times, but I have always turned around and left. This is someone who was over there on the ground fighting.”
Zack was a staff sargeant in the Army’s infantry prior to an unexpected medical retirement in September 2010.
Paul, Zack’s father, insisted his son did not leave the Army voluntarily.
“Knowing what we know about him today,” Paul said, “at this moment, right now, if he could, he would leave right now and be gone again. That is his heart. He is a soldier at heart.”
The flag presentation shocked and humbled Zack.
“I would be back over there (Afghanistan) without thinking about it, if I could,” Zack said. “I had other things come up, so this is where I am now. It is an honor to be recognized. Although, I don’t feel like I should be recognized.”
His face remained politely interested throughout the presentation until it was time for him to make several remarks.
The certificate read, “This is to certify the accompanying American flag was flown over and into Bagram Air field, Afghanistan, on the 24th of January 2013.”
The flag was presented to Lasaters Coffee & Tea, “On behalf of the C-130 crew of GLIDE 54, Combat Mission FMJF0522A024, tail 85-0035, while deployed supporting America’s war on terrorism during Operation Enduring Freedom.” The certificate was signed by Poe; Capt. Bryan Powell; Lt. Col. Doran Gillie; Technical Sgt. Scott Ferraris; Technical Sgt. Christopher Wild; and Senior Airman Justin Nettles of the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.
Zack’s throat appeared to be closed up as he set his bearings.
“I didn’t know it would be something so nice,” Zack explained. “I just wasn’t expecting that.”
He explained how the flag and certificate reminded him of his brothers in service.
“It is really nice to see the guys’ names that signed [the certificate]. I had to come back early ... [but] I know what those guys are going through with just our lifestyles over there [Middle East]. I don’t feel like people will understand their experiences or anything,” Zack said. “I don’t have a clue who they all are, but it feels like you are family, like you are brothers.”
Added Zack, “[The flag and certificate] are a good reminder, because I get caught up with inventory, coffee, customers, the daily grind. It’s good to be reminded of what is really happening in this world. There are other [soldiers’] lives happening that are important so that we can do this.”
“Even though I’ve been there and done that, you just get caught up in life.”
“So many Americans don’t think about that.”
Paul and Poe realized two uncanny coincidences between the flag’s flight and Zack’s life. First, both the flag and Zack were flown to Bagram Air field in Afghanistan.
“My son was on a mission when he had a medical problem,” Paul explained. “They flew him from there to Bagram and then from there to Germany and then back home.”
Second, the flag flew into Bagram on the same day Zack opened Lasaters’ current location on Spring Creek Boulevard.
The coffee shop has given Zack structure following his retirement from the Army.
“I’m not trying to make coffee better. It has been around forever,” Zack said. “We are just trying to do it our way.”
His thought process on opening his own shop? “I ran a platoon in combat. I can run a coffee shop.”
Heather Gates, Zack’s wife, smiled proudly throughout the presentation.
“I knew it would mean a lot to him. It means a lot to all of us. The military will always be a part of him,” Heather said before touching on the coffee shop. “I’m so thankful my husband is able to do this. That he is here with us, and safe.”
Continued Heather, “He takes care of our family, despite everything he has been through. He has turned it around and is doing something new.”