Staff Sgt. Michael Mantenuto, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), took his own life on April 24, 2017.
The break-out star of the 2004 blockbuster Disney film “Miracle,” who became a Green Beret in 2013, had for years endured and fought against deeply entrenched behavioral health and substance dependency issues. Hospitalized for 28 days in 2015, Mantenuto returned to Fort Lewis, Washington, with great hope and a desire to help others like those he’d met over the previous month.
Mantenuto would successfully promote a formal peer group model, beginning at 1st Group and then expanding, with the blessing of Madigan Army Medical Center’s behavioral health chief, throughout Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). Mantenuto titled his program World Addicts Revolution, or W.A.R.
At 1st Group, he was provided an office and given access to the best behavioral health and substance addiction specialists on post. His widow told NEWSREP her husband was “totally into” his new role and the W.A.R. program. “He knew everything about what was going on with the soldiers and their families,” she recalls. “He researched the smallest details. He even knew on a monthly basis how much alcohol was being sold at the on-post convenience stores, by category. He put all of this into his [PowerPoint] presentation.”
Mantenuto’s passion and his devotion to taking care of his teammates and their families was borne of his own troubled family life while growing up and the positive impact of his hockey coaches, especially in the Division One ranks at college. He was a team player, but he was also the first one there to help a teammate out off the ice. He brought that cultivated compassion and determination to Special Forces upon his arrival at 1st Group.
Mantenuto only shared his presentation with one person, a civilian who was in the civilian support group he’d co-founded. She handled the administrative aspects of W.A.R. to include arranging to have the program’s wrist bands made. His concern with giving a copy to anyone else, particularly Madigan’s behavioral health clinic, was to protect what little time he had at home. However, others involved in its evolution included Maj. Ryan Shubat at the Special Operations Forces Embedded Behavioral Health Clinic at Fort Lewis.
On May 17, 2017, I was one of roughly 12 attendees at a closed meeting at Group Headquarters at JBLM. The purpose of the meeting was to review, informally, all that had led up to Mantenuto’s suicide. Other attendees included the group commander and command sergeant major, Dr. Bill McNulty from the SF medical clinic, Major Shubat, and the group JAG officer. Along with me were two other civilians, including Mario Bolivar, director of the in-patient program in Oregon that Mantenuto had attended, and a now-former manager from the Wounded Warrior Project.
Over the course of the meeting, it was determined that no one at Group possessed the working PowerPoint Mantenuto used in his highly popular presentations. Indeed, no one present could really recall what the acronym “W.A.R.” stood for. What was determined was the program was essentially overseen by the Group command sergeant major who was a strong supporter of having an alternative within the compound’s confines for the enlisted and commissioned to attend. In a private conversation after the meeting, the CSM confided to me that he had not seen what was coming regarding his subordinate’s suicide and he was questioning how he’d missed the cues given.
What, then, was W.A.R.? We know the peer group continued at 1st Group and meets once a week at the compound. It is not an officially-sponsored meeting by the group commander and is closed to all but participating members. It is chaired by an active duty Special Forces senior non-commissioned officer who worked closely with Staff Sgt. Mantenuto on the original W.A.R. program of instruction. According to Sgt. 1st Class Chris Harper, PAO NCOIC at 1st Group, when asked by NEWSREP about ongoing suicide intervention and prevention at Group, we received this reply: “Our approach to suicide prevention is to promote healthy, productive behaviors through engaged, compassionate leadership.” Offline, Sergeant Harper went on to say Mantenuto’s loss was still deeply felt at Group and was a constant reminder for the operators to remain in touch with each other and vigilant about their own perhaps undisclosed challenges.
In reviewing what few things were possible, to include a close examination of the police photos provided NEWSREP of Mantenuto’s day pack and its contents, we know Mantenuto was seeking to change how Special Forces – and then the Army – conducted its mental health and substance programs. “Michael said they [the programs and approaches] were all outdated and ineffective,” said one source. “He had seen what worked so well while he was in-patient in Oregon and that opened up his eyes as to what more was possible.”
About Greg Walker:
Born in Fairbanks, Alaska, Greg Walker’s military career includes the 9th Infantry Division and the 10th, 7th, and 19th Special Forces Groups. He is a combat veteran of the war in El Salvador and Operation Iraqi Freedom. A published author and journalist since 1989, Greg specializes in investigative reporting, U.S. Special Operations history, and Veteran healthcare issues.