For readers touched by this Kelly de la Rocha story from last year, we have a sad update. Mr. Belfied died on Wednesday.
Justus Belfield wore his neatly pressed, olive green Army uniform with pride Monday, a red silk scarf tucked in at his neck.
His eyes shone as brightly as the brass buttons on his jacket and his grin flashed as he told tales of his 16 years in the service and his 71 years with his wife, Lillian.
At age 97, Belfield still stands like a soldier — tall and proud — his hands light on the handles of the walker that steadies his steps as he makes his rounds at Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where he and his wife live.
“He just loves to walk the halls and when he has his uniform on, he just has to stop and give everybody a hug. He’s just wonderful,” said Kathy Squires, a nurse at Baptist.
Belfield’s uniform still fits perfectly, even though he’s had it since 1952. He takes the well-cared-for ensemble out of the closet on holidays such as Veterans Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
Belfield likes to be called Jay, a nickname he’s had since he was 7 years old growing up in Utica. Everybody messes up the spelling of his real first name anyway, he lamented.
Belfield married his wife in 1942 and their first child, a son, was born just days before he was deployed in 1944.
“I saw him, held him in my arms,” he said of his child, who is now 69.
Leaving him was the hardest thing he ever did, he recalled.
“But when they say to you, ‘Come,’ and you’re in the Army, you don’t argue with them,” he said.
During World War II, Belfield was assigned to work in small arms repair.
“I didn’t repair them. I had other people doing the work and I got the credit,” he said, a devilish smile lighting his face.
He took part in the Battle of the Bulge and during his time in the Army earned the rank of master sergeant.
Following his service in WWII, Belfield re-enlisted in the Army in 1949.
“We weren’t in the Korean War yet, but then all of a sudden, I found myself on orders to go to Korea. But they had already made a deal with me that if I re-enlisted, I could stay on recruiting duty,” he recounted.
His job was to enlist soldiers in Syracuse.
“I didn’t refuse anybody,” he said proudly.
If men came to him with an interest in going into a branch of the service other than the Army, he would make sure to get them to the right recruiter.
Belfield said he recruited 100 soldiers for the Army in a relatively short period of time. His trick, he revealed, was to never tell potential recruits a lie.
“I told them everything that they would get when they got in,” he recounted. “I told them about the drill sergeant that didn’t have a brain in his head and all he could do was make a lot of noise. I said, ‘You’ll run into them. Pay no attention. You know that one of these days, you’ll get by him and go to somebody else who has some common sense.’ ”
Belfield received several discharges from the Army and each time, he said he re-enlisted right away.
He said he has no regrets about the sacrifices he made for his country.
“It was a good thing to do. I loved it because it was my country. It’s still my country,” he said. “I don’t like the president. I don’t like the way he handles things, but it’s still the United States. It’s still my country.”
After his time in the service, Belfield spent 30 years working in quality control as an inspector for companies including General Electric and Bendix in Utica. He also said he worked for RCA in New Jersey.
A few years ago, he and his wife moved to the Capital Region to be closer to three of their daughters.
The couple’s six children — five daughters and a son — have given them 19 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren, but there could be more great-grandchildren to come, Belfield was quick to point out.
In his spare time, he said he used to enjoy going fishing for walleye.
“I haven’t done it in years, since my fishing buddy went back to Texas,” he reminisced.
Belfield still spends time keeping up with politics and he’s also been talking to the volunteer coordinator at Baptist about securing some volunteer work.
“I don’t like to sit on my can doing nothing. I’ve got itchy feet,” he said, that great grin appearing once again.
More from The Daily Gazette: