05/28/2011 10:01 EDT | Updated 07/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Canadian Soldier Karl Manning Dies In Afghanistan In 'Non-Hostile,' 'Non-Accident'

(CP) KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The position of the Canadian flag said it all.

In fact, it spoke louder than anything Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner could have said about the death of Bombardier Karl Manning, who became the 156th Canadian to die in Afghanistan.

The flag was at full staff when Milner announced the death early Saturday.

Manning, 31, died in what the military describes as a "non-hostile" "non-accident" incident, which is code for he likely took his own life.

The flag did come to half staff after Milner's statement, in contrast to other times when it's been lowered the moment the headquarters learned of a death.

Whether it was a deliberate or inadvertent gesture, it said much about how the military's "go get'em" culture struggles to deal with suicide.

Manning, a native of Chicoutimi, Que., was an artillery soldier and radar operator, who spent the better part of a nearly completed tour at a remote base amid the desolate hard scrub villages of western Panjwaii.

It is a stark, hostile place that for years had been a Taliban sanctuary _ until the Canadian battle group, led by the 1st Battalion Royal 22e Regiment, pushed into the area last December.

Manning's body was discovered by fellow soldiers at the outpost in the Zangabad area on Friday.

"While an investigation is still ongoing to establish the circumstances surrounding his death, foul play and enemy action have been ruled out," said Milner.

If ruled a suicide, Manning would become the fourth soldier involved in the Afghan mission to have died by their own hand overseas.

The most high profile case involved Maj. Michelle Mendes, an intelligence officer who'd only been in theatre a short time when she was found dead in her room on April 25, 2009.

Her suicide put the military's career and mental health systems under close scrutiny with questions about how such an up and coming young officer could have suddenly decided to take her own life.

Another officer assigned to NATO headquarters in Kabul committed suicide. A corporal with a military police detachment at Camp Mirage in Dubai was another case.

The death of Manning is the second of the year, and the first for the Canadian mission in Afghanistan since March 27. That's when Cpl. Yannick Scherrer was killed by an improvised explosive device southwest of Kandahar city.

Milner described Manning's death as a great loss and offered his condolences to the man's family, friends and comrades.

"His professionalism and dedication were admired by all," he said in a brief statement before leaving without taking questions.

News of the death shook soldiers at the outpost and many of them gathered in an assembly on Friday to hear the news from senior officers.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered condolences to Manning's family and friends. "Canada stands behind you in these most trying times."

“Bombardier Karl Manning will be missed by the Canadian Armed Forces family, his community and Canadians everywhere," Harper said in a statement issued by his office in Ottawa. "We will remember his dedication and sacrifice alongside all of those who have lost their lives in the defence of our country.”

Gov. Gen. David Johnston also sent condolences to Manning's family and friends for their "unimaginable loss."

"But even as we mourn, we know that we will stand united and build a better life for the Afghani people," Johnston said in a statement.

Representatives of the Canadian Forces Health Services branch in Kandahar did not comment Saturday on the latest death.

The military has instituted a myriad of new mental health programs since the army first started seeing major combat in Kandahar, including the establishment of operational stress injury clinics at major bases across the country.

There is a recently overhauled suicide prevention program, which the medical branch has gone out of its way to highlight.

A recently completed a study of suicides concluded the Forces could do more to reduce workplace and career stress.

The most recent figures from the military's health group show 16 uniformed members — men and women — took their lives in 2009, almost double the number reported in 2006 at the beginning of the current Canadian deployment in Kandahar.

But military doctors do not look at the number, but rather the overall rate of suicide, which is averaged over a number of years. That figure suggested suicide in the ranks has remained steady.

Men are overwhelmingly more likely to commit suicide in the Forces than women.

Between 2005 and 2009, 50 men in uniform took their own life. Five women committed suicide during the same time frame.

Military members are screened for suicidal thoughts as part of regular fitness reviews and following overseas deployments, but the study questioned the usefulness of some screening questions.

Experts wondered whether it was possible to get an honest answer when asking someone directly whether they'd had thoughts of taking their own life.

The report suggested military doctors pay closer attention to depression, which is sometimes a precursor to a suicide attempt.

By Murray Brewster and Colin Perkel of The Canadian Press