Many fans recognize Michael Mantenuto from his role in Disney’s Miracle, but those who knew him best will remember him more for his work offscreen as a father, soldier, hockey star and community activists.
“He was so much more than just a Miracle actor,” Teena Lepene, a friend of the actor, tells PEOPLE. After a short career in show business, Mantenuto joined the Army. He was a Special Forces sergeant stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington at the time of his death. He was 35.
The actor was found on Monday afternoon after sustaining a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the King County medical examiner’s office in Seattle, Washington, tells PEOPLE. His death has officially been ruled a suicide. He’s survived by his wife, Kati, and two children: daughter Ava and son Leo.
Lepene, who knew Mantenuto from his special forces training at Fort Bragg, says, “[He] was awesome and charismatic, people were naturally drawn to him.” While going through a rigorous special forces qualification course, Lepene says Mantenuto found time to start a youth hockey program on post with MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation), a network of support and leisure services for soldiers and their families.
“This course is intense and incredibly time consuming, but he found time for his passion and youth. People’s needs always came before his own, he was so giving,” she adds. At Fort Bragg, Lepene notes, the special forces corps trains around the clock for a minimum of 16 to 18 months.
In addition, Lepene says the actor “started a substance abuse program to save lives,” adding, “He is such an amazing person … He has touched a lot of people’s lives.”
Lt. Col. Robert Bockholt, Director of Public Affairs for U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, tells PEOPLE, “Our deepest condolences go out to Michael Mantenuto’s family, friends, and teammates,” adding, “The cause of death is still under investigation.”
Mantenuto enlisted in 2010, two years after making his final film, Surfer Dude. He attended special forces training in 2013, and went on to become a communications sergeant. He was assigned to 1st Special Forces Group, where he was stationed as a communications sergeant until his death.
He also attended SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) training — a notoriously tough course that prepares soldiers for when they are lost behind enemy lines, or are taken prisoner.
He deployed in Operation Inherent Resolve, the military’s operational name for the fight against ISIS, according to Bockholt. “He was a decorated service member,” Buckholt says. His awards and decorations include the following: Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, National Defense Service Member, Global War on Terror Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, and Good Conduct Medal with two knots.
In the wake of his death, social media was flooded with posts from friends and fellow soldiers sharing memories and well wishes for his family. “In life you find those that inspire you and mentor you. Those that take the time to impact lives of others,” wrote Samantha…