Commentary by Robert Johnson

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- It's great to see that Fort Leonard Wood has recently welcomed a Suicide Prevention Program manager. Ernest LaMertha, a retired colonel and chaplain, will be a welcome asset in the fight to prevent suicides.

But having a manager to help prevent suicides is only one part of the fight. We all share the responsibility to stop these untimely deaths.

I remember the first encounter I ever had with a suicide. I couldn't have been more than 12, maybe younger. A kid in another school - someone I had never met - hung himself in the boys' bathroom. It was a closed-door topic, and my parents talked about it in hushed tones only adding to the mystery. At the time, I was sure it was foul play, because the concept of ending one's own life was too foreign for me to even imagine. I couldn't grasp the idea that something could be so bad that you need to end your life.

I still don't grasp that idea very well to this very day, but I know that suicides do occur, having them strike several times over the years closer to home and with people much more familiar to me. While the list of those suicides include a cousin, a coworker, a neighbor, a couple classmates from school and a fellow Soldier, the lingering questions in my mind are common in every instance: "Could this have been prevented' What if something was done' What if I had helped'"

I firmly believe that each and every suicide can be prevented, but not without action. To do that, we have to become the ACE in prevention.

ACE is an acronym that I wish I knew about when my cousin took his own life. It's real simple. ACE means Ask, Care and Escort. If only I could have asked John how he was doing, really cared about what his answers were, and escorted him to a facility for help. The "what if" question keeps coming back to me; what if we had simply asked him; what if we had reached out and showed we cared, and what if we stayed with him until we could get John professional help.

Part of prevention is recognizing the signs - those behavior changes that reach beyond the facial expressions. In another instance of suicide in my life, a friend that had been glum and depressed suddenly seemed happy. We shrugged it off that they were just getting better, but in reality, he had arrived at the conclusion that ending his life would solve his problems. The morning we found out that Jerry had committed suicide, everyone in the unit was shocked, but looking back and with today's training, we should have seen the signs.

And again, I thought, "What could I have done differently' What if I had only asked him how he was doing'"

Since then, I have been trying to be more astute to coworkers and friends. And yes, I have been somewhat of a goober, but I have point-blanked asked individuals if they were considering killing themselves. The reaction I have gotten is not always one of "thanks for caring about me," but asking someone if they have suicidal thoughts shouldn't be candy-coated.

The bottom line is that we all have this responsibility to stem the tide of suicides. In June, the Army experienced a record number of suicides - a record that no one wants to break.

If you have access to an Army Knowledge Online account, take the prevention training - and then apply your new knowledge.

It's great that the post now has a Suicide Prevention Program manager, but it would truly be wonderful if everyone were part of the effort to reduce suicides in our community to zero. Be an ACE and learn to ask how the individual is doing and if they have thoughts of suicide.

Don't let the question you later ask yourself be "What if."

(Robert Johnson is the managing editor of the Fort Leonard Wood Guidon newspaper.)