Perhaps it’s the marine in me, but I don’t use the term hero lightly. It should be reserved for those who boldly go above and beyond by taking extraordinary risks to do what’s right against tremendous odds despite real and potential negative consequences.
Darren Manzella was a hero.
On August 29, 2013, Darren died in a traffic accident in western New York. He was 36. A bright and beautiful flame has been extinguished. He left our world too soon, but he left our world a better place. But before this, I had the honor and privilege of working with and getting to know Darren during my short time as a grassroots organizer for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (now OutServe-SLDN), which led the battle to repeal the archaic “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
In the winter of 2009 we traveled to Boston together to meet with folks working on the repeal of DADT. It was the first time I watched him give a speech he frequently gave to groups, to the media, and in front of congressional committees to change people’s hearts and minds about gays serving in the military. He was persuasive. Not just because he lit up the place with his smile, charm, and charisma, but because he spoke honestly, humbly, and sincerely from his heart based on his own experiences, which were impressively significant.
He enlisted in the Army in 2002, was trained as a medical specialist, and served two tours in Iraq. Among many other distinctions, he was awarded the Combat Medical Badge. While witnessing the brutalities of war he wondered, like most combat soldiers do, if he would ever return home. But unlike most combat soldiers, he was saddened by the thought that those he loved most may never know all of who he was. So he came out to his friends and family.
“I had kept myself in the closet for years,” he said, “and I didn’t want to live like that anymore.”
He started dating. A few photos and videos circulated of him enjoying time with his boyfriend. In some they were kissing. Word gradually got out, rumors spread, and he started receiving threatening, anonymous emails. “Turn down the flame,” said one. Every day he wondered if and when military police might show up to arrest him. He described it as a time of “fear and deep insecurity.”
Knowing he risked being stripped of rank — which would cause him to lose money by being booted out of the Army — he nevertheless met with his commanding officer to discuss his struggles and reveal his true self. “I didn’t know what else to do to keep my sanity,” he said. It was the right thing to do; individual emotional distractions can affect everyone in a combat unit. An investigation was launched and concluded there was “no proof of homosexuality.” Darren was told he was “not gay.” That was an order. It was wartime, and the Army needed him.
During his second tour in Iraq, he was asked to be interviewed by 60 Minutes as part of a special report about DADT. He knew the risks but knew it was time to take a stand and help make a difference. He was the first openly gay soldier to be interviewed from a combat zone. The report was aired in December 2007, and it led to his eventual discharge in 2008.
After his talk in Boston, Darren and I walked the Freedom Trail on a brutally cold day and talked with respect and admiration about those colonial-era rebels who risked everything to stand up against tyranny and fight for liberty and equality. We stopped to warm up at a bar and swapped war stories. I shared my own struggles of coming to terms with my sexuality and coming out. I served before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when the unofficial policy — at least in the Marine Corps — was “anyone finds out and you’re dead.” I was envious yet hopeful when he told me how most of his comrades in arms didn’t care. They fully accepted him. One even invited Darren and his boyfriend to her wedding. The only soldiers within the ranks still holding on to the wrongs of the past were the older ones. Times were changing, and Darren was on the front lines.
When he was warned to “turn down the flame” he instead piled on the fuel and fanned flames of change. At a Washington, D.C., press conference, he once said, “This is who I am. This is my life. It has never affected my job performance.” Once, when asked if repeal of DADT would negatively affect the military, he responded, “I was an openly gay man in the Army, and the Army’s still standing.”
The Army is not only still standing, it’s stronger — as are all branches of our military; as is our nation — thanks, in no small part, to Darren Manzella.
This is who he was. This was his life.