It was a bleak November day in 1982 when Michael Kentes first encountered the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington. He stared at the polished black granite, searching among the 58,000 names for two soldiers killed in an ambush in the Long An province.
A photographer captured the moment, and the image later appeared on the cover of National Geographic. Dressed in a camouflage jacket and black beret, Mr. Kentes stands with his hand touching the wall, a red carnation between his fingertips.
During Army service in Vietnam, Mr. Kentes received the Silver Star — the military’s third-highest award for valor — for exposing himself to enemy fire while helping to recover the bodies of two men from his unit killed in the surprise attack.
“It was like being back in Vietnam,” Mr. Kentes recalled of that day beside the wall, “having all the guys there.”
Mr. Kentes, 63, died Dec. 8 at his home in Springfield after an apparent heart attack, said his daughter-in-law, Silvia Kentes. An official from the Virginia office of the chief medical examiner said determination of the cause of Mr. Kentes’s death is pending further investigation.
Much of Mr. Kentes’s life was shaped by the year he spent in the Mekong Delta on a combat tour as an Army Ranger. He was trained as a paratrooper and sniper, and his elite unit specialized in reconnaissance missions.
In August 1969, Mr. Kentes was a part of a team of Rangers sent to recover intelligence from the bodies of North Vietnamese soldiers killed in an attack by American helicopters.
Upon arriving, Mr. Kentes and the other Rangers began sweeping the area, a swamp filled with chest-high reeds and grasses.
Thomas Dineen, a Ranger who participated in the mission, said in an interview that one of the Vietnamese corpses began to move as Mr. Kentes approached.
Realizing that the enemy was attempting to throw a grenade, Mr. Kentes shot and killed the man with his rifle.
After collecting all of the enemy documents, the Rangers loaded into a helicopter with one Vietnamese prisoner found at the scene. Later, the prisoner revealed during an interrogation that the man Mr. Kentes had killed was a high-ranking Viet Cong general.
“Someone came in yelling, ‘Kentes killed a general! Kentes killed a general!” said Bill Cheek, a Ranger in Mr. Kentes’s unit, in an interview. “I first jokingly said, ‘Was it one of ours or one of theirs?’ ”
A team was sent to bring back the Vietnamese officer’s body for identification. Cheeks said that Army Gen. Creighton Abrams, who commanded military operations in Vietnam, and Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, personally came to inspect the general’s corpse.
Mr. Kentes returned from Vietnam and left active duty at the rank of corporal in 1970. He held a number of construction jobs, graduated from George Mason University and started his own home-inspection business. He coached a college rugby team.
But in many ways, the war stayed with him. He sometimes had trouble sleeping at night.
“You think of the guys you killed,” Mr. Kentes told The Washington Post in 2007. “You start thinking about those things as your life progresses.”
He asked himself questions: “Are things ever going to settle down? When is some normalcy going to settle in your life?”
He realized: “It never really does.”
Michael Kentes was born Sept. 14, 1948, in Fort Belvoir. His father was a career enlisted soldier who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
The younger Kentes graduated from George Washington High School in Alexandria and joined the Army in 1968. Besides the Silver Star, his decorations included the Bronze Star Medal and two awards of the Air Medal.
His marriage to Joan Moraski ended in divorce. Survivors include two sons, Michael J. Kentes of Gainesville, Va., and Paul Kentes of Alexandria; and two grandsons.
Mr. Kentes told The Post in 2007 that Vietnam had changed his life.
“You get hardened” in combat, Mr. Kentes said. “You get real, real hardened.”