Downtown Evans City now bears a new memorial that raises awareness about veteran suicides and honors a local veteran who took his own life.
The memorial, a black granite bench placed along East Main Street near the NexTier Bank drive-through, is in honor of Andrew “A.J.” Smith, a former firefighter and veteran who served in Iraq and died by suicide in 2016.
A.J.'s mother, Evans City resident Deb Smith, and her husband Jim founded A.J.'s Stop 22, an organization dedicated to spreading awareness about the risk of suicide and PTSD in the veteran population. The organization's name references a Department of Veterans Affairs statistic that 22 veterans die from suicide every day.
While still a small organization, A.J.'s Stop 22 has raised $85,000 so far, mostly through an annual golf outing, to be donated to suicide prevention organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“There's only around 15 of us and it's a lot of work, but it's so rewarding,” Smith said.
Funds to install the bench were donated anonymously from several people who “wanted to do something in (A.J.'s) memory,” Smith said.
“The bench is such a neat thing,” she said. “Something I really remembered when we lost A.J. is that every firefighter who came up at the funeral said, 'Rest easy, brother — we'll take it from here.' So, that's what's on the bench because that meant so much to me.”
Smith hopes to raise awareness about the mental health struggles faced by veterans across Butler County and beyond.
“People don't realize the need that's out there, how many of our guys are suffering,” she said. “We try to bring awareness throughout the county to make people aware that our veterans are suffering. We just need to do more for our veterans.”