By Steve Charing
Outfitted in a sharply pressed dark suit and flashing a megawatt smile that illuminated his square jaw, former Sergeant Darren Manzella spoke before nearly 70 people at the Veterans Day meeting of Columbia/Howard County Chapter of PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Darren Manzella, 31, helped mark the event by sharing his personal story and discussing the impact of the travesty known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT)—the military’s policy that prohibits openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the Armed Forces.
Manzella is a Policy Advocate and Major Gifts Officer for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, of which he had been a client for two years. His moving soft-spoken presentation was at times somber, but it was also sprinkled with a few humorous asides and anecdotes.
“I enlisted the U.S. Army in 2002 following the attacks of 9/11 when there was a nationwide wave of patriotism,” he told the audience. Manzella, a medic, eventually deployed to Iraq in 2004 where he provided medical coverage, emergency treatment and evacuation during more than one hundred 12-hour duties on the streets of Baghdad.
While under fire, he gave medical care to his fellow soldiers, Iraqi National Guardsmen and Iraqi civilians. His care during an attack in Iraq earned him the Combat Medical Badge, and he is also the recipient of several other awards recognizing his courage and duty to service in the war zone.
It was while Manzella was serving in the Army that he realized he was gay. Sgt. Manzella had come out first to his roommate, then his other friends, and finally to his parents. Eventually his fellow soldiers and superiors knew, and their reaction ranged largely from indifference to fully supportive.
But there were exceptions. Following threats of outing and a DADT investigation by his command, Sgt. Manzella wrote in a letter that, “I don't think most people can understand how hard it is to have to hide their true self; to have to pretend to be someone that they are not; to be scared that you'll be ostracized for being different; to be told that you're wrong if you live a certain life . . . that concerns no one else but yourself. . . . I am proud of myself and of the accomplishments I have achieved in my life.”
To his surprise, the investigation into his personal life was closed, and the Army deployed Sgt. Manzella later that year for a second tour of duty in the Middle East - again in Baghdad and then Kuwait.
After receiving word that Leslie Stahl of CBS News 60 Minutes wanted to interview him in Kuwait with regards to DADT, Sgt. Manzella was conflicted. He knew that telling his story on such a public stage would likely end the career he loved.
On the other hand, this was an opportunity to help other gay and lesbian service members by publicizing the discriminatory nature of the policy in an effort to gain public support for its repeal. He decided to go through with it; the interviewed aired in December 2007.
In March of 2008 his commander at Fort Hood, Texas informed Manzella, that he was being recommended for discharge under DADT. A copy of the 60 Minutes transcript was attached to the discharge recommendation. On June 10, 2008, Iraq War Veteran and Army Sergeant Darren Manzella was separated from the military with an Honorable Discharge.
The repugnant DADT policy is responsible for the discharges of 12,000 able service members since its inception in 1993. At a time when the military is actively recruiting those with sub-standard intelligence as well as felony records to meet enlistment quotas and beef up troop levels, fully competent patriotic gays and lesbians continue to be shown the door, which impacts our efforts in the war on terrorism. Nearly 800 specialists with critical skills, for example, have been fired from the military under DADT, including several linguists who speak Arabic.
And the costs of the policy are staggering. U.S. taxpayers have paid $250 million to investigate and root out patriotic servicemen and women under DADT and as much as $1.2 billion in lost recruiting and training costs.
But the issue will always be about discrimination. “DADT impacts all families who have gay children,” said PFLAG-Columbia/Howard County chapter chair Colette Roberts. “It's horrible being told your son or daughter who is trying to serve in the military is being treated like a second class citizen, hiding who they truly are.”
Darren Manzella, who now resides in Washington, D.C. working with SLDN to continue the fight for the repeal of DADT, is optimistic that an Obama Administration will take a serious look at the policy and try to gain consensus among the military’s brass. “Polls are showing greater acceptance of gays and lesbians openly serving in the military,” he pointed out. “It is the older generation in the military who is resistant to the change.”
Indeed, more than two-thirds of civilians support allowing gays to serve openly in the military. And despite the fear-mongering about unit morale, nearly 3 in 4 troops say they are personally comfortable serving side-by-side with gays and lesbians.
Those in the packed meeting room, which included some from the chapter’s Rainbow Youth Alliance, were captivated by the compelling personal journey traveled by Darren Manzella.
“Darren's story about a small town boy who joined the military to see the world only to become a man was truly inspirational,” said Sean McGovern, a member of the PFLAG chapter’s Advocacy Committee. “It struck me funny that the one institution that discriminated against him helped him realize who he truly was and that his fellow soldiers had become honorable men of tolerance with him.”
Nothing would vindicate Darren Manzella’s sacrifice more than the repeal of the ban and the liberation of his fellow gay brothers and sisters.
To contribute to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, click here