Army Sgt. Darren Manzella, a leader in the fight against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the first openly gay active duty sevicemember to speak to the press from a war zone, died last night in an automobile accident in suburban Rochester, New York. Manzella was 36 years old.
He and his husband Javier Lapeira would have celebrated their two-month wedding anniversary next week.
Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle reports:
Cpl. John Helfer of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office 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 [Manzella] stopped his car in the middle lane of I-490, got out and started pushing it from behind, Helfer said. A sport utility vehicle rear-ended the car, pinning the man between the two vehicles.
He was pronounced dead at the scene, Helfer said. The other two involved drivers were taken to Strong Memorial Hospital with minor injuries.
Manzella served in Iraq and Kuwait as an Army medic, earning a Combat Medical Badge for treating fellow soldiers while under fire in Baghdad. He was out to his Army buddies, but came out to his commander after he began receiving anonymous emails warning him to "turn the flame down."
The officer reported Manzella in accordance with the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Manzella cooperated fully with the investigation that followed, submitting photos of him and his boyfriend and video of a road trip they had taken together. But curiously, at the conclusion of their investigation, the Army told Manzella to return to work because "proof of homosexuality" had not been found.
Acting without permission from the Army, Manzella came out on CBS's 60 Minutes in 2007 in an effort to help build momentum for allowing open service for gay and lesbian members of the military and ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." After a period of uncertainty in which Manzella was unsure of his fate, he was discharged from the Army in June of 2008 for "making statements that you are a homosexual." A transcript of his interview with 60 Minutes was reportedly attached to the discharge papers.
He was given an honorable discharge with full benefits. Manzella worked with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network to advocate for DADT repeal, speaking around the country about his experience, lobbying on Capitol Hill, and volunteering at Pride events. DADT repeal was certified in 2011.
Steve Ralls, the former SLDN communications director who coordinated Manzella's coming out on 60 Minutes, described him as a brave and committed equality advocate.
"There are a few specific stories... that really played a critical role in turning public opinion in favor of the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and Darren's interview was one of those stories," Ralls told the Bilerico Project. Ralls said that when CBS's Lesley Stahl and her producers contacted SLDN about speaking to a gay, active-duty servicemember, Manzella "immediately volunteered" for the interview, which had to be carried out in secret in Kuwait City.
Ralls says Manzella knew full well that he'd be fired for speaking out, but that it didn't matter. "That's how passionate he was about ending this [DADT] policy," he said. "Darren was just a great guy -- positive, wonderful to work with and to know. His death is a really, really crushing loss."
Watch Sgt. Manzella's 60 Minutes appearance below.