A gay veteran of the Iraq war who fought against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has died in a car accident in Pittsford, N.Y.
Darren Manzella, who came out as gay in 2007 while serving in the Army during an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” died on Thursday at the scene of the crash. He had just turned 36 on Aug. 8.
Steve Ralls, the former spokesperson for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network who handled his public relations at the time, said openly gay troops currently serving around the world today are able to do so, in part, because of Darren’s sacrifice.
“Darren knew he would be discharged for speaking out, but he volunteered to do it because he wanted the men and women who followed him to be able to serve openly without fear of discharge or discrimination,” Ralls said. “That’s the kind of guy, and the kind of soldier, Darren was. I know how deeply proud his family was of him, and that pride was shared by all of us who had the privilege of working with him, too.”
Manzella served as an Army medic in Kuwait and Iraq and earned a Combat Medical Badge for treating his fellow soldiers. His “60 Minutes” interview was filmed, in secret, in Kuwait City while he was still a Staff Sergeant in the Army.
He was the first openly gay service member on active duty to speak to the press from a war zone. Months after coming out publicly, Manzella was given an honorable discharge under the military’s gay ban in 2008.
Since August 2011, Manzella had been working as a health science specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Rochester. According to his Facebook page, he very recently married his spouse, Javier Lapeira, on July 5.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, who also faced discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for being gay, knew Manzella and said he was an inspiration.
“Darren Manzella wasn’t just a hero and an inspiration to me personally, he was an American hero and a civil rights leader,” Fehrenbach said. “When my ordeal started in May 2008, I saw Darren’s interview on 60 minutes. He inspired me to speak out and tell my story. He had such a great impact in the repeal of DADT.”
Fehrenbach, who was ultimately able to stay in the Air Force before he retired on his own volition, said his friend will leave a lasting legacy.
“The only blessing is that Darren died as a soldier and a husband,” Fehrenbach said. “He was able to fulfill his dreams to serve his country openly and marry the man he loved. I will miss him dearly, and I will never forget him. He made the world a better place and he made me better and stronger for knowing him.”
The Rochester-based Democrat and Chronicle quotes Michael Manzella, Darren’s father, as identifying his son as a person who was killed in the accident Thursday night.
Michael Manzella reportedly said Darren was struck by a sport utility vehicle while pushing his car that was already damaged in an accident that happened immediately beforehand on Interstate 490. Michael Manzella is quoted as saying as of Friday afternoon, his calls to police so far haven’t been returned.
In the same report, Cpl. John Helfer of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office reportedly confirmed an accident involving two collisions took place on Thursday that caused someone’s death. However, Helfer reportedly wouldn’t name the person.
Helfer reportedly said the incident began as a two-car crash on the westbound lanes of the highway in Pittsford, when one car sideswiped another car about 8:30 p.m. The man in the struck car stopped in the middle lane of I-490, got out and started pushing it from behind, Helfer was quoted as saying.
But a sport utility vehicle rear-ended the car, pinning the man between the two vehicles. The man was pronounced dead at the scene, Helfer reportedly said. The other two involved drivers were reportedly taken to Strong Memorial Hospital with minor injuries.
Lapeira told the Blade the police came to his apartment to notify him that they had found Manzella’s car and his body, which remained at the Medical Examiner in Rochester until Saturday.
“Needless to say, Darren was a hero in every sense of the word,” Lapeira said. “Even at the moment of his death, his first instinct was to push his car off the freeway to avoid any injuries to others.”
After coming out on “60 Minutes,” Manzella was discharged months later under the military’s gay ban known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” President Obama signed legislation to repeal that law in December 2010 and lifted the ban the following year.
In January 2008, the Washington Blade published an article — the first byline in the paper for this reporter — on Manzella’s appearance on “60 Minutes” during a period of uncertainty on whether he’d be expelled from the military. After he was subsequently kicked out of the Army under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Blade followed up in July 2008 with an article on his experience.
At the time, the former soldier told the Blade during his discharge proceedings he had the opportunity to request a board to rebut statements that he made to the press. But Manzella waved this option.
“I said I wouldn’t take back anything,” he said. “It would defeat the purpose of why I participated in the [“60 Minutes”] segment. It would defeat the purpose of working with SLDN.”
The former soldier told the Blade experience of being out in the military, making media appearances and ultimately being discharged from service has made him “much more aware” of his identity.
“My belief that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ needs to be repealed has magnified significantly because I’m personally affected by it now,” he said.