The Royal Oak Police Honor Guard performs a silent flag folding before presenting it to Mayor Michael Fournier during Royal Oak’s Veterans Day ceremony at the Royal Oak Public Library Nov. 11.

The Royal Oak Police Honor Guard performs a silent flag folding before presenting it to Mayor Michael Fournier during Royal Oak’s Veterans Day ceremony at the Royal Oak Public Library Nov. 11.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Veterans Day speaker highlights mental health

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published November 19, 2019

 The Knights of Columbus present a wreath at the Royal Oak veterans memorial during a snowstorm following the city’s indoor Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11.

The Knights of Columbus present a wreath at the Royal Oak veterans memorial during a snowstorm following the city’s indoor Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Guest speaker Deb Smith, founder of A.J.’s Stop 22, talks about the 2016 suicide of her son, A.J., an Army veteran who served in Iraq, during Royal Oak’s Veterans Day ceremony.

Guest speaker Deb Smith, founder of A.J.’s Stop 22, talks about the 2016 suicide of her son, A.J., an Army veteran who served in Iraq, during Royal Oak’s Veterans Day ceremony.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

ROYAL OAK — On Nov. 11, dozens of people overflowed out of the small meeting room at the Royal Oak Public Library, where the city’s annual Veterans Day ceremony was moved due to blizzard-like conditions.

The ceremony featured guest speaker Deb Smith. She and her family started the nonprofit A.J.’s Stop 22 after her son took his own life at the age of 28 after serving in the Army in Iraq.

Smith said her son, A.J., struggled with post-traumatic stress for some time before asking for help. He was part of the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team and returned home in March 2010.

“He finally did it. He asked for help on Jan. 12. They said they were sorry, but the next available appointment was in March. A.J. couldn’t wait. He took his life Feb. 21, 2016,” she said. “We were heartbroken. We were lost.”

After the fog lifted, she said, she wanted answers and began learning more about post-traumatic stress disorder and how, on average, 22 veterans die by suicide every day. She and her family created A.J.’s Stop 22 to raise awareness and prevent veteran suicide by hosting fundraisers.

“We need to reach out to our veterans, check on them and have an honest conversation with them,” Smith said. “If you’re worried about somebody, please assume you’re the one who is going to reach out to them. Talk to them in private. Tell them that you care. Just listen to their stories — sometimes, that’s all they need.”

Some signs of suicide, she said, include hopelessness, thinking there is no reason to live, mood swings, rage, anger, risky activities, the thought of self-harm, and withdrawing from family and friends.

“Suicide is not the answer,” Smith said. “There is help. Our veterans fought for us and now it’s time to step up and fight for them.”

The Rev. Jeff Nelson, of the Royal Oak First United Methodist Church, said he was proud to be part of a community whose police force shows compassion toward homeless veterans in the community by checking on them at night to make sure they are safe.

“We need to be reminded that how we celebrate Veterans Day is not just gathering here today. It’s what we do when we leave here today,” Nelson said. “At our church five days a week, 35-50 hungry and homeless people will come for lunch. … Until we can do better by them, we will continue to offer them a meal and a place of dignity and hope right here in our community.”

The ceremony included performances by the Royal Oak High School band and flag-folding by the Royal Oak Police Honor Guard, and those in attendance gathered on the library steps and around the veterans memorial for the laying of wreaths amid the ice and snow.

Jack Hall, a veteran and chaplain for the Royal Oak Memorial Society, said he was glad for the showing despite the inclement weather.

“We used to have a lot more people, but things have changed. Everybody’s getting older and most of the World War II guys are gone. I like ceremonies. I’ve been doing it for a long time,” Hall said. “There’s hardship in the war, not just for the guys serving, but their families too.”

Call Staff Writer Sarah Wojcik at (586) 218-5006.