Justus Belfield: A moment can last forever

NEWS10’s Mark Baker posted this image to his Facebook page just one day after meeting Justus Belfield, a 98-year-old veteran who spent his last day on earth in his army uniform, with his wife by his side. (Photo: Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center)

A mere moment can live forever. One of my most memorable moments almost didn’t happen.

Last November 11, as Community Hospice health aides Debbie Asante and Corrine Tooley were dressing Justus “Jay” Belfield in his army uniform for Veterans Day; I was heading to the doctor’s office.

After that appointment I had two options, go home and relax for a while before going to work or taking the time to personally thank some veterans who had sacrificed years of their lives in service to our country.

I actually went home.

But it didn’t feel right. Something was drawing me to go to Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Scoita. I had been invited there before by one of the dozens of vets who live there. And, Activities Director, Barb Bradt had also contacted me about an in-house parade they were having for the vets on this day we set aside to honor them. I missed the parade, but she took me to see a couple of them. Then, she asked if I’d like meet Jay, who wasn’t expected to make it through the day.

Upon entering his room, I was immediately captivated. There Jay lay in full uniform with a blanket over him to keep him warm. But I could feel the warmth in that room as Patriot Guard members Jen Megas and Ned Mead were doting over this proud soldier as they paid their respects.

Jay was fading in and out and I thought I should be going before the family returned from taking a break. So I thanked him for his service and as I did he opened his eyes and stretched out that arm — the same one he used to make the now famous salute. As I took his hand and gently shook it, he thanked me. That’s a moment I will never forget.

As Jay faded out again, Barb mentioned staff members Christine Camp and Nancy McKiernan had actually snapped a picture with a cell phone of Jay saluting. Sensing that might be a nice image to share, I asked Barb if she would please send me the photo if it was okay with the family.

NEWS10’s Mark Baker posted this image to his Facebook page just one day after meeting Justus Belfield, a 98-year-old veteran who spent his last day on earth in his army uniform, with his wife by his side. (Photo: Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center)
Justus Belfield, a 98-year-old veteran who spent his last day on earth in his army uniform, with his wife in a bed by his side. (Photo: Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center)

I thought a lot about Jay that day.

Then, the next morning when I checked my emails, I had one from Baptist Health telling me that Jay had passed at 3 a.m. still wearing that uniform. I also saw an attachment. It was the photo. The moment I opened it, I knew. It perfectly captured Jay’s pride, dignity and love of country. America was going to love this proud patriot.  I posted it on my Facebook page and it started getting traction. But it needed to be shared on a bigger platform so I contacted the station and our web manager posted it at around 1 p.m.  By the time I got in around 2 p.m., it was spreading like wildfire. By the time I got off the air at 6 p.m., it was going viral. That evening, we were getting calls from the networks and Baptist Health was getting inundated with requests for the photo.

I wanted to meet this man’s family and Baptist Health’s Marketing and Development Director Ruth Tietz graciously set up interviews the following morning with Jay’s wife of 72 years, Lillian, as well as his children and grandchildren. That’s when I got to know Jay, a man whose love of the uniform would have him in and out of the military.

In all, he served 17 years, on the ground in Europe during World War Two, as a recruiter for the Korean War, and even supporting the Berlin Airlift. But it didn’t come without pain. When Jay read the obituaries of the young men he’d enlisted, he buried his pain in alcohol. But his love of God, family and country would help him win that battle. You feel it when you are around his family. There’s a faith and bond among them that go to the very heart of what makes this country so strong and such a great place to live.

I was so moved by the family I wanted to do something special for them. So, I reached out to Senator Bob Dole, who led the fund-raising effort for the World War Two Memorial. Jay was an early donor and had hoped to make a Leatherstocking Honor Flight last October to see it and meet Dole, who often greets the vets there. Senator Dole obliged and with the station’s approval, I set about to have the letter and photo framed. As I was getting estimates, a man walked up to the counter and insisted on paying for it as a gift to the family. He had watched the story and wanted to pay his own tribute to this man who touched him so profoundly, as he has millions of others.

I presented the framed photo and letter to the family while they were here for the holidays. Then, just as we were set to air the story Wednesday, Lillian passed away. She had spent more than seven decades with him and couldn’t live three months without him. With the family’s blessing, we aired the story last night. Judging on the response, I think it served its purpose of paying tribute to a man who showed such a strong commitment to his country and his family. There’s a part of me that thinks Lillian wanted to join Jay in time to watch it with him.

As for me, I just feel so fortunate to have been in a position to tell this man’s story. It’s also a lesson learned that some of life’s best moments are waiting for you—if you go with your better instincts.

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