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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (February 10, 2012) Suicide prevention coordinator Art Wienandt, right, runs through a bridge jumper simulation with Jacque Wheeler, middle, during an ASIST program workshop Feb. 10 at JBLM Lewis North Chapel.

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Years ago, Joint Base Lewis-McChord Suicide Prevention Coordinator Arthur Wienandt remembers sitting across from an officer who had just completed an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training program.

The man, whose unit had recently experienced a suicide, sat down in Wienandt's office and cried. When he was finished, he looked up.

"If I knew then what I know now, I could have helped him," he said.

"I'm sure you could have," Wienandt replied.

That was all -- after that, the man got up and left. But Wienandt never forgot the exchange.

The former Army family life chaplain now helps lead two-day ASIST workshops twice a month at JBLM. Considering that the last two years were the highest on record for Army suicides, the program is as relevant now as it ever was.

"To me, it's a life or death issue. Suicide is killing yourself," Wienandt said.

In 2010, there were 350 potential and confirmed suicide deaths Armywide, including servicemembers, Department of the Army civilians, and Family members. Of those, JBLM had nine confirmed suicides. The number dropped in 2011 to 315 total suicides, including 12 confirmed from JBLM.

Outside the Army, an estimated 8.3 million (3.7 percent) adults in the United States reported having serious suicidal thoughts in 2008, according to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2006, suicide was the 11th leading cause of death for all ages, also according the CDC.

To help address the issue, the Army approved the use of ASIST, a two-day workshop developed by LivingWorks, in 2009. The interactive program arms participants, including the 620 Soldiers and civilians who took the course on JBLM last year, with strategies to recognize people at risk of suicide and intervene.

"Everyone should take this class because someone they know or don't even know could be in a situation where they're looking for help," Jacque Wheeler, an Army spouse who participated in last week's training session, said.

Wheeler signed up for ASIST because she's working toward a degree in social work, but also because she knows having a Soldier husband puts her into close contact with a vulnerable population. In recent years active duty suicide deaths have exceeded civilian suicide rates for the first time ever.

The class's atmosphere was both lighthearted and informative, with room for laughter in spite of a serious subject. But the most effective aspect was the simulations that required participants to immediately apply the skills they'd learned.

Wheeler found the trickiest part was being persistent but not pushy while attempting to talk Wienandt (playing the part of a person at risk of suicide) back from the edge of an imaginary bridge. She also had to remember the model she'd just been taught while working with a real person, who pushed the seams of the textbook examples.

On breaks, students took the time to talk with instructors about the program and suicide prevention. Much of the conversation focused on the stigmatization that often prevents Soldiers from asking for help.

"That's the big thing that we're dealing with in the Army," JBLM Suicide Prevention Coordinator Steve Kosylo said. Because the ASIST program was developed by civilians, and is used worldwide, it doesn't address stigmatization or any other issues from a military perspective.

Still, the ASIST program is the best Wienandt has ever worked with. In fact, he'd love to see even higher participation -- especially from commanders who don't

think their Soldiers can spare the time. Most of the participants agreed.

"They're not wasting those two days," Sgt. Paul McCartney, 2nd Brigage, 2nd Infantry Division, said.

McCartney volunteered for the course in order to prepare for his next deployment, and hasn't regretted a moment of it. In fact, he thinks units should make sure every platoon has at least one trained suicide interventionist.

"I just wanted to make sure I had some kind of training so I could recognize my guys that are going through struggles," he said, noting that he didn't know how subtle some of the signs could be before taking part in the training.

In fact, most people at risk of suicide do let people know -- in one way or another. In retrospect, many have realized that comments, questions and even Facebook posts held ominous clues that a friend or coworker was thinking about killing themselves.

For Wienandt and Kosylo, it's a case of better safe than sorry. The more people recognize and address these signs, the more suicides might be prevented.

"I firmly believe that one is too many. And this is something we can do something about," Wienandt said.

Page last updated Fri February 17th, 2012 at 00:00