I wish I had met Delbert Belton.
If a life of purpose were coalesced into one action, then Mr. Belton, a survivor of the Battle of Okinawa, truly lived an exemplary one.
Last Wednesday night Shorty, as the diminutive veteran was known, was sitting in his car in the parking lot of a Spokane bowling alley, waiting to escort a female friend inside, when he was attacked and critically injured by two teenaged boys. Hours later the 88-year-old man who participated in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific, who took a bullet for his country in 1945, died of wounds inflicted by street thugs.
Belton’s stature and age likely made him a target for what appears to be a random attack, a so-called “thrill kill” by youths wearing gang attire. As of this writing a 16-year-old male has been arrested and another remains at large.
It was a senseless killing, maddeningly so. Yet, in Mr. Belton’s honor, we should try to make some sense out of this brutal narrative.
Shorty was just a few years older than his alleged killers when he answered the call to serve his nation in a time of war. Soon after, he shipped out and was dropped on a beach defended by 130,000 entrenched enemy soldiers. He forced his way through a crucible of violence that killed 12,500 Americans, emerging with a bullet in his leg and severe shell shock. Returning home, he spent 33 years with Kaiser Aluminum. He retired to a peaceful life that included dancing, tinkering on cars and shooting pool.
All in all, Mr. Belton lived a meaningful life, a life worth living.
In contrast, there are scant details about his alleged young killers, whose pasts include prior arrests and a penchant for gangster attire. Undoubtedly they are both loved by others; some may still see them as good kids despite their alleged role in a reprehensible murder. But when life gives us an important choice to make – as it did for Shorty on a beach in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater – we will own our decision and wear it as a badge of honor, or disgrace, for the rest of our lives.
If the allegations are proven, then Mr. Belton’s killers, if tried as adults, could wind up watching the passing decades slip by from behind prison walls. By choosing to live without purpose, his killers would have truly lived wasted lives.
If I were to write an ending to Mr. Belton’s life, it would include a peaceful death, a dignified burial among his comrades, and an acknowledgment of his courageous service by a grateful nation. That didn’t happen, and it makes me very sad.
I sure wish I had met the man.
Update: The TNT reported that both alleged killers are now in custody. Both will be tried as adults.