Ypsi Township display of crosses seeks to raise awareness of veteran suicide

A grassroots group called 22aday is planting 22 crosses on the Ypsilanti Township Civic Center's lawn every day through Memorial Day to raise awareness of suicide among military veterans.

Jon Luker says he and his co-founders Wendy Hibbitts and Al Merritt originally put up the display in autumn of 2018 as a favor to Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo. Previously, a small group of local veterans who had lost loved ones to suicide had put up the display a few times. 

"They had to stop doing it because it was so emotionally draining," Luker says of the first team to run the Veterans Suicide Awareness Project. "In the process of borrowing their crosses one time to bring out here, we realized how important it was that people become aware, and especially for civilians to become aware."

Stumbo asked the three 22aday co-founders to pick up the project. Through their association with the local chapter 310 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the three co-founders were already involved in maintaining the civic center's Washtenaw County Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The three co-founders bought their own crosses and a trailer to transport them. They began installing the crosses in Ypsilanti Township for 30 days each September to mark Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, as well as putting on displays in Ann Arbor and other communities around southeast Michigan. This year, the organization plans to offer the display twice in Ypsilanti Township: this month, and again in September.

Hibbitts says the name of the organization came from old statistics from a Veterans Administration study, finding that there were 22 suicides a day by veterans.

"That number is actually higher now. This was based on stats from about five years ago," Hibbitts says. 

Township employees and local veterans have been showing up at noon each day to help plant the 22 crosses for the day. Merritt calls the process of planting the crosses "soothing" and says it promotes healing. The co-founders note that sometimes volunteers write the names of their loved ones on the crosses they help to plant.

When people drive by, Luker says he hopes people see that there is a "huge problem that just keeps getting worse," and realize that there's something they can do to help.

"It can be as little as calling your congressional representative and saying you've got to take care of vets way better than you're doing now," Luker says. "Or if they're suffering the loss of someone who has committed suicide, we can help them get connected to counseling."

Luker says the 22aday organizers would like to expand the number of demonstrations they do each year, and that communities are invited to inquire about hosting a display.

"Ideally, we'd like to spread not only across the state but to other states," Hibbitts says. "If people in the Upper Peninsula want to do it, we'll figure out a way to get our crosses up there and teach you how to show it, and you can do the display at your location."

Hibbitts says that, if nothing else, she hopes the displays will encourage difficult conversations.

"If you see someone you know struggling, there's nothing wrong with asking if they're thinking of hurting themself," she says. "I find a lot of times that simply asking that question can bring about a lot of healing and conversation about what's going on and what we can do as a community to rally around you."

Information about the Veterans Suicide Awareness Project and suicide prevention resources are available at https://www.22aday.org.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photo by Sarah Rigg.