Powerful Voice in the Battle to Repeal DADT Dies in a Car Crash

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Darren Manzella died on Interstate 490 near Rochester, N.Y., after his car sideswiped another at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday, August 29, 2013. He stopped his car in the middle lane, got out and started pushing it from behind, and a sport utility vehicle rear-ended the car, pinning Manzella between the vehicles, the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle reported. Manzella enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2002 and served two tours of duty in the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was promoted to sergeant, was a team leader of a medical squad and conducted more than 100 12-hour patrols in the streets of Baghdad, treating wounds and evacuating casualties of sniper fire and roadside bombs. In 2007, Manzella challenged the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, during a network television interview before being discharged in 2008 for discussing his sexual identity on television. The DADT policy was repealed in 2011, but from its inception in 1993, the military discharged more than 13,000 under DADT. Manzella worked at the Canandaigua VA's crisis call center as a counselor and married Javier Lapeira-Soto at a ceremony in Rochester on July 5. Manzella had recently signed on as a reservist.

In a letter dated May 19, 2010, Manzella wrote U.S. President Barack Obama explaining that after being in Baghdad for four days in 2004, a good friend was shot in an ambush and it changed his perspective. "I wondered, what if I had been killed in action and had never come to terms with who I truly was and, even worse, never had the chance to share it with my loved ones? There comes a point when acceptance is your only salvation -- my return from Iraq was my moment. "I applied for Officer Candidate School under the recommendation of two generals in my chain of command. But, today, instead of protecting my fellow Americans, I sit working in a university development office because I was discharged under DADT.  "When I came out, the first people I told were comrades, with whom I had just spent 12 months in Baghdad. To be honest, I was scared of their rejection more than the mortar and rocket attacks, ambushes, or roadside explosives. But, they showed immense understanding of what I had been going through and offered unconditional support. "The response from my brothers and sisters in arms proved that the military is a family -- no matter if you are man, woman, black, white, transgender, gay, or straight. What truly matters is whether you can trust the person next to you. And how can trust be built around a lie?  "One day, I received an email from a soldier I had never met; it said I was being investigated under DADT and that I would be stripped of my rank and pay and eventually discharged. I tried to ignore it, but the emails continued and became more derogatory. Soon, I began receiving similar phone calls at work.  "Unsure of who to trust, on edge every second, and losing more and more sleep each night, I approached my supervisor. I refused to have someone else end my career. He offered a sympathetic ear before reporting me to the legal department.  "After an investigation into my statements and the harassment, I was told I was an exceptional soldier and to 'drive on' with my work. It was a great a relief to break the silence. My colleagues suddenly understood why I had always been so detached and began asking me to join them in activities outside of work.  "Later that year my division deployed again and I served the entirety of the deployment as an openly gay soldier. I no longer had to lie if someone asked if I were married or had a girlfriend, I didn't have to write my emails in 'code.' I no longer feared being 'outed.' I finally was able to be honest.  "After arriving in Iraq for the second deployment I was promoted once again and served my division as the medical liaison officer in Kuwait. It was there that I participated in an interview with Leslie Stahl for "60 Minutes."  "I gave voice to the tens of thousands of men and women who serve everyday under the fear of DADT. The interview also ended my career. I was honorably discharged on June 10, 2008."

He is survived by his husband, his parents, two brothers, two sisters-in-law and nieces and nephews. In 2010, Manzella's mother, Nancy of Portland, N.Y., wrote a letter to Department of Defense personnel asking for the repeal of DADT.

Letter from the Mother of a Soldier Discharged Under DADT:


Darren Manzella and his Mother Nancy S. Manzella

August 24, 2010

Hon. Jeh C. Johnson

General Counsel, U.S. Department of Defense

Co-Chair, Comprehensive Review Working Group

General Carter F. Ham

Commanding General, U.S. Army Europe

Co-Chair, Comprehensive Review Working Group

Dear General Ham and Mr. Johnson:

My name is Nancy Manzella and I have been a mother for 34 years. My husband and I live in rural Western New York where we have made our home at a grape vineyard and have raised three wonderful sons. We now have beautiful daughters-in-law and grandchildren. We are proud to say that we are the all American family.

I also was a military mom for six years. Our son, Darren Manzella, served two tours in the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Soldier in the United States Army. He was promoted to sergeant, was a team leader of a medical squad, and conducted more than 100 12-hour patrols in the streets of Baghdad, treating wounds and evacuating casualties of sniper fire and roadside bombs.

Darren was awarded the Combat Medical Badge, honoring him for treating American and Iraqi troops while under fire. He saved lives while putting his own in precarious situations by treating gunshot wounds to blast injuries and more. He was "out there" and our family knew he was in constant danger.

As anyone who is familiar with our military knows, service takes tremendous sacrifices, not only for those who serve, but for their loved ones they leave behind. Our family was always concerned for Darren's safety, as all military families are for their sons and daughters in uniform. We were also concerned for him because he was openly gay while he served his second tour. We knew that anyone in a war zone was at risk of being harmed at any time, but we also understood that because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Darren was especially vulnerable. He could be fired, forced out of the Army, and potentially face harassment and abuse. The stress was incredible.

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" not only affects the gay and lesbian service members' lives, but also throws their loved ones, friends, and all family members' lives into a stressful nightmare. We cannot get to them if they need us for support, as they are thousands of miles away. The ban impacts so many lives adversely. It causes unbearable stress on everyone concerned, especially with the constant fear that we may slip up, we might inadvertently "out" them even in a simple letter from home. The "All American Families" who have gay or lesbian service members serving are living with this stress every day.

As parents, this law offends us deeply. It tells us that our gay and lesbian children who are in uniform and putting their lives on the line every day, saving lives, are not good enough to serve their country. The law discriminates against family members, forcing fear and anguish into their lives. Our sons and daughters should be judged on their performance, loyalty to country and bravery, not their sexual orientation.

We need to support all American military families – straight or gay.

Our son was fired under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and I still believe to this day he would willingly serve his country again if this law ended. I can tell this discharge not only affected his military career, but caused him to question his self-worth. Under the law it doesn't seem to matter how good you are at your job; how many lives you save or people you support; or how patriotic and dedicated you might be. If you happen to be gay or lesbian, this law says you are somehow "less than."

The Army teaches honor and integrity and holds those values dear. Despite these values, the Army still isn't allowed to let our gay and lesbian troops live up to that potential because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Under this law, troops are forced to be dishonest, to put integrity to the side, and to live in the closet – with their families closeted beside them – denying who they are.

They need the opportunity to "Be All That They Can Be."

I am urging you to support the repeal of this unjust law. The values that we gave our kids, and the values the Army told Darren they believe, are really the values we should strive for. But until this law is gone, those values are undermined by unfairness, discrimination and prejudice. I realize that our country is in the midst of great change having to make many crucial decisions. I also understand that the Administration has "a lot on their plate" right now. I'm an American, too, and have many concerns about our country. But, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal cannot and should not be pushed down the road.



Nancy S. Manzella


CC: U.S. Sen. Carl M. Levin

Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee

U.S. Sen. John S. McCain

Ranking Member, Senate Armed Services Committee

U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman

Member, Senate Armed Services Committee


    Don't Ask Don't Tell was Repealed in 2011 

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