For the past three days, I've had the privilege of spending time with Army Sergeant Darren Manzella, the openly gay medic who recently came out on 60 Minutes, and his amazing mother, Nancy. Darren and his mom (pictured, below) came to Washington this week to speak out about his experience in the armed forces, to educate the public about life under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and to be the recipients of some well-deserved toasts at a Wednesday night reception in their honor.
Along the way, they also fired some shots at the military's gay ban and moved us closer than ever to repealing this unfair and unjust law. No one, I was left thinking last night, could possibly hear Sergeant Manzella's story, see the pride in his mom's smile and still think "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" serves any useful purpose at all.
Washington blogger Wonkette - who, after professing her own crush on Manzella, joined him last night at the reception in DC - may have put it best this afternoon when she said, "See, Darren actually really wants to stay in the Army. He likes serving his country, he likes being a medic, and he likes being himself (which, sadly, is part of the problem)."
And yet there are some so desperate to put their own homophobia on display that they're actually running a campaign to try and get Sergeant Manzella fired. Now, it's time to stand up for Darren, who has stood up for all of us during his time in the U.S. Army.
Darren is an extraordinary soldier with an extraordinary determination to serve his country while simply daring to be who he is. Again and again during his recent visit, I heard him speak passionately, often emotionally, about how much he loves serving the United States, how much he is looking forward to returning to his base in Texas to be with his buddies and how much he believes that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has got to go.
He is, in short, everything our country should want in the men and women in our armed forces.
Some forces, however, are determined to thank Darren for his service and sacrifice by trying to get him fired.
It began on Tuesday morning, when Elaine Donnelly, champion of the all-straight, all-male military, told USA Today reporter Andrea Stone that she has been "bothering" Darren's command at Fort Hood, Texas, to do something about the gay in their midst. In fact, it seems that Ms. Donnelly has been furiously harassing the base, asking them to dismiss Darren and to slap around his command, who had the audacity to retain a good soldier who happens to be gay.
Then, later that morning, Elaine sent a plant (no, not flowers, trust me) to Darren's news conference at the National Press Club. Tommy Sears, her "executive director," sat quietly in the room, furiously scribbling notes on a pad. Darren told me after that he had kept looking at Sears while talking about the positive responses he had received from his Army buddies after coming out, but that Tommy boy "wouldn't look me in the eye." Indeed, every time Darren looked at the staffer from the so-called Center for Military Readiness, the plant bowed his head and avoided looking back.
Got shame, Mr. Sears?
The mere idea that anyone could want a stellar, dedicated soldier like Sergeant Manzella off the job simply because of his sexual orientation seems outrageous (and it is). But, you see, the only thing Elaine and her ilk think is worse than a terrorist attack is the patriotic gay man who would actually put aside differences and defend their asses against that same attack.
In fact, the man who deciphered the Nazi code in World War II (and, arguably, helped win the war), happened to be gay. As was one of the men who rescued Jessica Lynch from captivity in Iraq. And Sergeant Manzella, a medic who did at least twelve 100-hour missions on the streets of Baghdad, has saved countless lives, both American and Iraqi, and not one of them ever asked if he might be gay.
No one except the far fringe of the right actually thinks Darren should be fired. Not even, apparently, the Army he serves.
When Darren told his superior that he'd be coming out on 60 Minutes, “He stood up and he shook my hand and he said ‘I wish you the best of luck and it’s unfortunate that policies like this are in place," he recounted on Tuesday. And the Army, when asked about its reaction, simply told reporters that it would be "premature" to say what will happen to Darren now that he's being honest and open about who he is.
What should happen is absolutely nothing. Darren, who has received orders to report to Fort Drumm in March, intends to show up for duty, complete his enlistment and continue serving everyone in our country - including dear, old Elaine - while being true to himself.
One reader emailed Servicemembers Legal Defense Network yesterday to say that, as a veteran, he knows how "irreplaceable" a good medic is, and couldn't imagine anyone caring more about a service member's sexual orientation than their ability to get the job done. And there's no question that, despite whatever Elaine may believe in the fog of reality she lives in, Darren is irreplaceable. And he's a man on a mission.
I talked to Darren's mom this afternoon, when I checked in to make sure she had made it home OK. "I feel like I have two families now," she said, referring to her own family and the family of people fighting for troops like Darren. She's enormously proud of her son for speaking out, and unwaveringly dedicated to repealing this law.
And so tonight, as I reflect on the three days I spent with Darren and his mom, I'm reminded again of that word: irreplaceable. Darren's service to his country and this cause; his mom's pride and passion for doing what's best and right; and the contribution they've made to lifting the ban are just three of the "irreplaceable" things I found over the course of a few days here in Washington.