According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), there are an average of 129 deaths attributed to suicide on a daily basis in the United States. Of that number, 22 individuals who commit suicide are estimated to be military veterans. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
While the lingering question of “why” is common among survivors of those who die by suicide, the void left behind by an individual’s passing is tangible. That’s why every year for the past three years the community of Surf City and the surrounding area have come together to bring suicide out of the darkness. The city’s annual “Be the Difference” Walk hosted by the AFSP to fight suicide took place March 24 at Soundside Park. More than 250 attendees joined together to share the stories of survivors, provide resources and showcase the difference a support system can make.
Live music echoed from the stage, and Boy Scout troops offered free snacks and water for those in attendance. Mental health resources were on hand to help those dealing with their own issues as well. In a ceremony prior to the walk, survivors of those lost to suicide were recognized on stage. As presenters spoke to the tragic circumstances leading to the untimely deaths, attendees were urged to place notes on a wall bearing the faces and names of those lost.
“We appreciate all these people coming out showing their love for their community and also working to make people more aware,” said Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin. “I think friends getting around somebody that is in trouble is the only way that you can stop this. They’re going to have to have that friendship to hold among their family and their friends to get them out of it.”
The issue hit close to home in Surf City following the death of Tanner Jones, a member of the community who died in 2016 just eight days after his 23rd birthday. Many attendees wore shirts bearing the hashtag “LiveLikeTanner” in his memory. Medlin was among them.
“That’s probably what really brought this home,” Medlin said. “They (Tanner’s parents) grew up next to me as little kids. Then their son came along. … That was a big loss to me also. It was almost like losing one of my own.”
Coordinating the event was Stephanie Jones, the sister-in-law of Tanner Jones.
“I wanted to hold a walk in March in memory of him and also to bring together the community,” Jones said. “This is the third year for the event and it’s a beautiful day. … The weather has been so much better than last year and the attendance has really honestly just blown my mind. I had no idea that this many people would turn out.”
As the roughly two-mile walk commenced following a ceremony in remembrance of the deceased and support of survivors, the crowd filled the walkways on Surf City’s high rise bridge. Throngs of people supporting the cause wore shirts promoting messages of assurance and support. Students from Onslow County’s Dixon Middle School came out in bulk for the event.
“I have to give a shoutout to my students for really wanting to participate and stepping up to raise money,” said Dixon Middle School Builder’s Club director Emily Hedrick. “We ended up raising about $280. … The process continues through June too, so we’re going to continue trying to raise money and support the cause.”
That money brings the community a step closer to its goal of $20,000.
“The support has been overwhelming. I think we might be able to meet our goal this year,” Jones said. “I wasn’t sure if we would be able to because of Hurricane Florence or if businesses could support us.”
The ASFP provides communities hosting such events with resources for educators and other leaders to help people in danger of committing suicide or substance abuse. It also conducts research at a national level to push for the prevention of suicide.
Of the many in attendance and wearing bright orange shirts were the survivors of James “Jimmy” Kalitz. Kalitz had served in the Marine Corps for four years and was a combat veteran. He was 32 at the time of his suicide in 2014. He had been a resident of Surf City while stationed on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. His sister, Michelle Kalitz-McDonald, was in attendance with her family, and the depth of the event was not lost on her.
“This place (Soundside Park) is very special to me because, when my brother did pass away, we did a memorial right here in the same location,” Kalitz-McDonald said. “This venue in itself is very important to me. My brother would fish here. I imagine he’d sit here and think, too. He’d bring his kids here and they’d play on the swings. He’d stand on the same bridge and look at the same view we’re seeing today. … I miss him so much and I know there are people here who miss their loved ones so much, too. I’m so happy to see people here who support this cause because there are a lot of people who are scared to come out and recognize the issue. … Suicide doesn’t really get a whole lot of light shed on it.”
Kalitz-McDonald also recognized Surf City’s proximity to Camp Lejeune and the stigma of suicide as it pertains to the military.
“There are all these military men and women or veterans who stay in this area that are also suffering silently,” Kalitz-McDonald said.
James Kalitz enlisted in the Marine Corps following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and was deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served as part of 2nd Tank Battalion. He is survived by three daughters — Kamryn, Kenzie and Gianna. He loved the Surf City area and encouraged his family to move to the area after being stationed at Camp Lejeune.
In addition to supporting the AFSP events in Surf City, Kalitz-McDonald is an advocate for 22 Too Many, a nonprofit group that strives to serve as a living memorial for veterans lost to suicide while supporting the families left behind.
For more information about the AFSP and Surf City’s “Be the Difference” walk, visit https://afsp.org/.
To find out more about 22 Too Many visit https://www.22toomany.com/.