MAYS LANDING — Throughout February, those driving on Dennis Foreman Drive will see a sobering patriotic display as they make the turn toward Oakcrest High School.
On Thursday morning, Oakcrest’s National Honor Society and Junior ROTC students planted 660 American flags on the front lawn of the school, one to represent each veteran who takes his or her own life per month.
Flags for Forgotten Soldiers is a program started by Howard Berry of Cincinatti, after his son, Staff Sgt. Joshua Berry, died by suicide.
According to federal statistics, 22 veterans die every day by their own hand, said Lynn Brown, of Absecon, totaling about 8,000 veteran suicides a year.
Brown, who is Joshua Berry’s aunt, was on hand at Oakcrest to oversee the flag planting. She said Berry was injured at the Fort Hood military base shooting in 2009 and suffered from post-traumatic stress. He then served another tour of duty overseas.
“It took him four years to die. He took his own life; he couldn’t get past it,” she said.
Brown said her brother, Berry’s father, had decided on the 660 flags for this program because of the visual impact.
“People are shocked to learn that number,” she said.
Junior ROTC Cadet 1st Lt. Brittany Williams said she was one of those surprised by the statistics. She said she and the other students did not hesitate in wanting to help.
“I think it’s pretty much an image that stands out to others,” said Williams, 19, of Hammonton. “It’s important that others see how big an issue this is.”
Flags for Forgotten Soldiers is not new to South Jersey, with previous displays at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Galloway Township, Shore Medical Center in Somers Point and at Zion and Fire roads in Egg Harbor Township. But this is the first school in New Jersey to participate.
“It seems like almost everybody is touched by this tragedy,” Brown said. “It’s important to see how devastating this is.”
Brown said more needs to be done to help veterans with mental-health problems. She said the hope is people who see the display will be encouraged to talk to a veteran they may think needs support.
“Our hope is that someone will make a different choice (and) families will know their loved ones aren’t forgotten,” Brown said.