From Rochester Democrat & Chronicle - By: Nestor Ramos
Darren Manzella was a combat medic and a counselor, a U.S. Army sergeant and, as of July, a newlywed.
But those who knew Manzella, who died in a car crash on Interstate 490 Thursday night, said his heroism extended beyond the battlefield.
On national television, Manzella challenged the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, becoming the face of gay servicemen and women before being discharged in 2008 for publicly discussing his sexual identity.
The policy was repealed in 2011, and a friend said Manzella - ever a proud soldier - had recently signed on as a reservist.
The crash that killed him began as a two-car collision in the westbound lanes of the highway in Pittsford, when Manzella's car sideswiped another car about 8:30 p.m., according to Cpl. John Helfer of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.
Manzella, 36, stopped his car in the middle lane, got out and started pushing it from behind, Helfer said. A sport utility vehicle rear-ended the car, pinning Manzella between the two vehicles.
He was pronounced dead at the scene, Helfer said. The other two involved drivers were taken to Strong Memorial Hospital with minor injuries.
In December 2007, Manzella told a 60 Minutes interviewer that he was gay, and had violated the 1993 policy that barred gay servicemen and women from disclosing their sexual orientation.
A few months later, he was discharged.
In a 2010 letter to Department of Defense personnel, Manzella's mother Nancy asked for the repeal of don't ask, don't tell.
"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," Nancy Manzella wrote.
"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."
In his own 2010 letter, this one to President Obama, Manzella detailed his journey.
"I gave voice to the tens of thousands of men and women who serve everyday under the fear of DADT. The interview also ended my career," he wrote.
Sen. Charles Schumer, who opposed "don't ask, don't tell," remembered Manzella in an emailed statement
"We will always remember Sgt. Manzella as someone who had the courage both to fight for his country and to change it," Schumer said.
Friend Anne Colwell Colangelo of Rome said she learned from relatives last night that the man she'd known since fourth grade had died.
Manzella moved to Rochester a few years ago after several years away, Colangelo said, "which was awesome." He was working at the Canandaigua V.A.'s crisis call center, and married Javier Lapeira-Soto at a ceremony in Rochester on July 5.
"Last night, after finding out the news, his mother and father went right to Rochester to pick up his husband," she said. "Javier became their son the day they married."
She said Manzella had recently joined the Army Reserves.
"Being in the military and serving was a very important part of his life," she said. "He was very proud to be a soldier."
She and Manzella grew up side-by-side in tiny Brocton, Chautauqua County.
"He has lived so much life. He's been around the world - so much experience he put into such a short time here. He really was a hero in so many ways."