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Darren Manzella, who fought for DADT repeal and a newlywed, dies at age 36

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Darren Manzella, a former Army sergeant who was a leading advocate for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” died Thursday night in a traffic accident. He was 36, and a newlywed.

Manzella was a combat medic who served in the Iraq War in 2004. He was drummed out of the Army in 2007 just months after he came out on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” After his discharge under DADT, Manzella became an outspoken opponent of the military’s discriminatory policy.

In 2010, Manzella sent a letter to President Barack Obama in which he noted that: “I gave voice to the tens of thousands of men and women who serve everyday under the fear of DADT.”

Also in 2010, his mother, Nancy Manzella sent a letter to the Defense Department in support of repealing the DADT policy:

“My husband and I live in rural western New York where we have made our home at a grape vineyard and have raised three wonderful sons. We now have beautiful daughters-in-law and grandchildren. We are proud to say that we are the all-American family. As parents, this law offends us deeply. ... Our sons and daughters should be judged on their performance, loyalty to country and bravery, not their sexual orientation.”

Aubrey Savis, a veteran who formerly led the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), mourned Manzella’s death.

“Sgt. Manzella put a proud and brave face on the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal fight, telling America and the Pentagon on ‘60 Minutes’ that he was a gay soldier about to complete another tour of duty in the Middle East,” Sarvis said in a statement.

“Darren understood he would most likely be discharged under that terrible law, but still, he wanted to make the fight to hasten the day ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ would end.”

Sarvis said Manzella worked for SLDN for several months after his discharge, and “continued to tell his story to policymakers on Capitol Hill and at the White House, and clearly his story made a huge difference and moved lawmakers to act.”

Obama led the effort to get Congress to repeal DADT in 2011.

Manzella joined the Army Reserves after DADT was repealed, and worked in the crisis call center at the Canandaigua Veterans Affairs facility.

On July 5, Manzella married Javier Lapera-Soto in Rochester, where they called home.

On Aug. 29, Manzella died in a tragic accident on Interstate 490 in Pittsford, N.Y. According to the local sheriff, Manzella’s car sideswiped another car about 8:30 pm. Manzella’s car was disabled in the middle lane of the interstate, and he got out and starting pushing it from behind in an apparent attempt to move the car to the side of the freeway to prevent other accidents. But an SUV slammed into Manzella’s car, pinning him between the two vehicles, and he was pronounced dead at the scene. The two other drivers involved in the accident were taken to an area hospital with minor injuries.

Manzella is survived by his husband and his family.