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'Don't ask, don't tell,' activist dies in N.Y. car crash

Aug. 31, 2013 at 1:58 AM   |   Comments

ROCHESTER, N.Y., Aug. 31 (UPI) -- A U.S. Army sergeant discharged after being interviewed on CBS's "60 Minutes" as a gay soldier in a combat zone died in a car accident in New York. He was 36.

Darren Manzella died on Interstate 490 near Rochester, N.Y., after his car sideswiped another at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday. 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The DADT policy was repealed in 2011, but from its inception in 1993, the military discharged more than 13,000 under DADT.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.

"As parents, this law offends us deeply. ... Our sons and daughters should be judged on their performance, loyalty to country and bravery, not their sexual orientation," Nancy Manzella wrote.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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