Yesterday I learned of a tragic accident that claimed the life of Darren Manzella, an army medic who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2008. Manzella was twice a soldier, first in Iraq and then back home, fighting against the government injustice that cost him and thousands of others their careers.
Manzella was the keynote speaker at a diversity conference that I organized with students in early 2009. He shared an extraordinary story. After anonymous soldiers threatened to out Manzella, he preemptively spoke with his superior officer about his sexual orientation and his boyfriend back home. Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” such notification should have led to immediate discharge. Instead, after a short time Manzella found himself cleared of all charges and ordered back to his unit.
Whether through favoritism, sympathy, or just dumb luck, Manzella had been given a second chance. Yet he could not erase the guilt he felt at serving while others were being thrown out. The capricious nature of military investigations upset him to the point that he decided to share his story publicly, knowing that he would be discharged. He sacrificed his career for the purpose of fighting an unjust policy.
Manzella’s talk was unsettling, not simply due to the military policy in question. How many of us, under similar circumstances, would feel emotionally and ethically compelled to act as he did? Would we really be prepared to live by our school motto of being not for oneself? In person, he was generous and kind; he patiently answered many questions. In many ways he was the perfect guest speaker for our community.
In the past two years Manzella celebrated the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and signed up for the Army reserves. He married his boyfriend this past July.
It is a senseless loss. Manzella served his country well. May his memory be a blessing for all who mourn.