COLUMBIA STATION, Ohio - A Marine from northeast Ohio, who has been separated from his family for years while he was serving our country, wanted to surprise his stepdad for Father's Day.
The top secret surprise has been weeks in the making. Phil Betts was meeting a friend for breakfast bright and early Friday morning at the Four Keys Restaurant in Columbia Station. Little did he know, his stepson, whom he hasn't seen in two years, was right outside.
Sgt. John Diller has been serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently stationed in San Diego, Calif. at Camp Pendleton, serving as a combat instructor at the School of Infantry. Today, he said, it felt good to be home.
Diller quietly entered the front door of the restaurant, rounded the corner and spotted his stepdad.
"What's up old man," said Diller. "What in the world? You stinker! Good to see you," replied Phil Betts, who was quite surprised. "Happy Father's Day," Diller said.
The pair wasted no time catching up over pancakes and sausage.
Diller hasn't spent Father's Day with his stepdad in six years. This year, Diller entered an Operation Homefront essay contest. In 250 words or less, he wrote about what his father meant to him.
"My stepfather entered my life when I was ten and has been twice the father I could have asked for. Since joining the Marines as an infantryman I have rarely been able to make the trip from California to home due to the cost. In the past two years I have been home to Ohio for two days. Recently my wife and I saved up just enough money to send her and our two girls home for a month in June to see our family but we couldn't afford for me to go with them due to unforeseen expenses that came up. My stepfather has meant so much to me in my life but I am rarely afforded the chance to have any meaningful times with him due to the distance as well as being in the infantry, especially now as a combat instructor at the School of Infantry. It would mean the world to me to be able to surprise my dad on Father's Day by being there for once since joining the Marine Corps. I'm his only child and I want him to know that I don't take for granted how amazing of a father he is. He gave so much to make me the man I am today and I just want him to have a special Father's Day for once. Thank you."
Diller was selected as one of the winners of that essay contest. His prize was a trip home from California to Cleveland.
After joining the Marine Corps several years ago, Diller began to realize just how much his stepfather has done for him.
"He came into a pretty bad situation when I was a young kid. I was about nine. He married my mom and he was twice the dad that he didn't have to be," said Diller.
The Marine describes his stepdad, who is a pastor, farmer and retired teacher, as a wonderful role model.
"He's the perfect example to me of what a man should be. He's a loving father, a loving husband. He's the hardest working man I've ever seen on this planet. To me, he's the example of what I hope to be someday," said Diller.
For father and son, the feeling is mutual.
"I watched him grow up, become a man, become a father... And I'm very, very proud of him," Betts said as he fought back tears.
This year is bound be an unforgettable Father's Day.
"I love you dad," said Diller. "I love you too," replied Betts.
The non-profit organization Operation Homefront sponsored the essay contest, along with Dove. This Father's Day, they're bringing 300 service members all across the country home to spend Father's Day weekend with their families.