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    One Soldier’s Legacy

    zoeThis past week brought some incredibly sad news – former Army Sergeant Darren Manzella passed away Thursday, August 29, in a tragic roadside accident in upstate New York. He was only 36 years old. An Army combat medic, he was the national face of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) during a particularly critical time in the fight to repeal the law.

    In December, 2007, in a CBS 60 Minutes interview from Kuwait, Sergeant Manzella told his personal story. He told millions of viewers what it was like to hide who you are while trying to serve the country you love. His act of courage immediately received national coverage, and the attention of military authorities. As a result of his honesty, he was discharged from the military. Even after his discharge, Darren continued to advocate for the repeal of the law and serve as a spokesperson, showing first hand the cost of DADT – a trained combat medic’s skills and experience lost for no good reason.

    I am particularly moved by Darren’s courage because he came out proactively, putting his career at risk to help make a difference. He didn’t come out after he was safely retired or had left the service, or because he was being investigated or charged with violating the policy. He stepped forward and told his story because he was tired of living a lie. He told it before President Obama was elected, during the George W. Bush Administration that strongly fought at the time for discharges of LGBT service men and women. His actions and his record made a powerful statement, to demonstrate that he and thousands of other LGBT men and women in uniform serve honorably every day, worried they will lose their jobs if discovered.

    I had the honor of meeting Darren on a number of occasions. He had dimples and a cleft chin and beautiful blue eyes that twinkled with warmth and a little bit of mischief. He was an eloquent spokesperson – unassuming, with a calm strength and warm humor. He was the kind of guy you wished were your son, your best friend, your brother, your fellow soldier. He went from relative obscurity to the blazing lights of 60 Minutes with dignity and professionalism. Our community could not have asked for a more effective spokesperson. His death is a huge loss to his family, particularly his husband Javier Lapeira-Soto, whom he had just married the month before. But it is also a painful loss for those in the DADT repeal community that got to know and love him these past several years.

    He may not be with us in person, but his work and his legacy live on. May we all strive to tell our story the way Darren did.

    Darren was a big part of the history of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). To find out more about how SLDN came to be, as well as other major LGBT organizations, please join me for a big LGBT History night at the Old Mint on Thursday, September 5. Presented with Project Open Hand, the evening features great talks (Stuart Milk, Donna Sachet, Jose Cisneros, and many more), performances (Cheer SF, Gay Men’s Chorus, SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band), AIDS Quilt exhibit, and DJ/dancing for a great nonprofit cause. All proceeds from this nonprofit event benefit Project Open Hand and the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. For tickets and information, go to http://outofthepast.eventbrite.com/

    I hope to see you there!

    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She currently serves as the 1st Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.