09/02/2013 10:30 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Soldier Who Changed His Country

Former Army Sergeant Darren Manzella, who was killed in an auto accident in upstate New York last Thursday at the age of 36, was one of those unassuming individuals who had simply had enough when he decided to step forward and speak out.


He had served twice in Iraq and Kuwait. He was a decorated combat medic. He had done his duty to his country and he was tired. Tired of the war and, because he was gay, weary of having to be dishonest to serve, weary of the charade and demands that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) required of him and all LGBT service members.

So he decided, enough! He had to speak out and he did so in a very big way. He told his story to Leslie Stahl and 15 million Americans on CBS' 60 Minutes in December, 2007 in an interview from Kuwait. Suddenly millions of mothers and fathers realized that not only could Darren Manzella be their son, they would be tremendously proud to call him son.

Although Darren's coming out on the country's most popular television news magazine could hardly have been more public, he did so in his own typically Darren way, understated and with tremendous dignity.

That evening Darren began educating Americans and their lawmakers in Washington on just how unfair and demeaning DADT really was, how the law itself was at odds with the core values of our military. Moreover, Darren demonstrated it really didn't work.

Darren understood he was taking on a new assignment. He kept at it and didn't stop until the mission was completed with Congress and President Obama acting to strike down the discriminatory DADT law. Gays and lesbians can serve openly in our military today thanks to the heroic stand of brave service members like Sergeant Darren Manzella.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) recognized Darren's great achievement. "We will always remember Sergeant Manzella," he said, "as someone who had the courage both to fight for his country and to change it."

Of course, Darren paid a huge price for standing up and officially coming out to the Army. For that he was fired, discharged from a job he loved and did well. He wanted to serve but he was no longer willing to lie about who he was. More than once he told me he had done enough of that for too long. He also told me the lying was robbing him of who he was. He wanted his integrity back.

And yet this remarkable soldier was not bitter about the way he had been treated and discharged. He understood Congress had made the law, and that Congress and President Obama working with the Pentagon would need to change it. He was quietly determined to be a part of that campaign, "honored," as he often said, "to help a little wherever I can."

Despite his treatment, Sergeant Manzella loved the Army. After DADT was repealed he was proud to join the Army National Guard as a reservist. And they welcomed him back into the ranks.

We are mourning today in Chautauqua County as we prepare for Darren's wake and the funeral Tuesday just two months after his marriage to Javier Lapeira-Soto. He will be laid to rest near his birthplace in Portland, NY, with full military honors.

He deserves nothing less. Darren Manzella -- patriot, soldier, husband, son, brother -- not only made a difference to our military and to our country, he made it better. In that way, he made a difference to us all.