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Holiday homecoming for gay US soldier

PinkNews Staff Writer December 21, 2007
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The Christmas holidays will be a whole lot brighter for the Manzella family, who are looking forward to welcoming a very special guest home.

Sergeant Darren Manzella featured on last Sunday’s US current affairs show 60 Minutes about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

He arrived back in the United States yesterday with his unit, returning from a long tour in Kuwait. He got back to his base in the States yesterday.

“Sergeant Manzella’s story illustrates the arbitrary and uneven enforcement of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” said Servicemembers Legal Defence Network (SLDN) executive director Aubrey Sarvis.

“Many commands, like Manzella’s, recognise that their lesbian and gay troops are instrumental in the work of defending our country.

“Those commanders, who want to do the right thing and retain good troops, should not have their hands tied by this unfair law.

“Our nation’s commitment to fairness and civil liberties demands an end to this law, and our national security interests are best served by repealing it.”

Since 1993, more than 12,000 men and women have been dismissed under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), nearly 800 of those dismissed had skills deemed ‘mission-critical’ by the Pentagon, including 322 language experts, 58 of whom were proficient in Arabic.

While “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” dismissals have declined by 50% since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an average of two service members are dismissed under the law every day.

Enforcement, SLDN reports, is largely arbitrary and varies from command to command.

A recent SLDN survey found that troops in deployable units were far less likely to be dismissed under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” than those stationed stateside.

Less than 25% of discharges in 2005, the SLDN analysis revealed, were from units deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Sergeant Manzella joined the Army in April 2002 and deployed to Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II, in March of 2004.

He provided medical coverage during more than one hundred 12-hour patrols on the streets of Baghdad.

While under fire, Manzella cared for Iraqi National Guardsmen, Iraqi civilians and his fellow service members, earning him the Combat Medical Badge, a swift promotion and several other awards honoring his courage and duty to service.

He returned for a second tour of duty in the Middle East in 2006 and is currently stationed in Kuwait.

“As you can imagine, his CBS appearance on Sunday has caused quite the buzz among his fellow troops,” the SLDN blog reported, “but Darren reports to SLDN that he’s received an overwhelmingly positive response from many people, both inside and out of the armed forces, who have contacted him to offer support and congratulations.”

Sargeant Manzella gave an interview to SLDN earlier this week:

Q: What motivated you to come out on 60 Minutes?

A: I saw a chance that so few individuals have the opportunity to participate in.

I saw a chance to get on national television and just tell my story and try to relay to millions of Americans how hurtful the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is to this country’s military.

It was an opportunity to notify the country that I am open about my homosexuality to my command and colleagues and that the Army has not fallen apart due to my confession.

Q: After notifying your command and colleagues of the story, what has been their reaction?

A: I have not received any notification, positive or negative, from my command since I notified them of my participation in the story or since the broadcasting of the segment.

Q: As someone serving on the frontlines, what do you hear from other troops about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” What do you think is the future of the law?

A: I have served with many men and women in Iraq, Kuwait and throughout the United States. In my opinion, they do not care if a service member is gay or straight.

These men and women are my brothers and sisters in arms and I am the same to them. I know that what matters to most is not the sexual orientation of the person in your unit.

What matters most is if that person is a good worker, a team player and most importantly, if that person has your back when it really matters whether it be in a combat zone, during a training exercise or day to day operations.

I think that a majority of troops are in favour, or at the very least indifferent, to the repeal of this policy. I find that many are surprised that so much power and influence over the fate of this policy lies in the hands of individuals who are not even in the ranks of the military.

Q: What do you want SLDN supporters to know about your experience, the 60 Minutes story and the campaign to repeal this law?

A: I would like the supporters of SLDN to know that when I first came out to my command I felt alone. Like I was an individual that did something wrong.

Now I feel like part of family and I know that this family will always be supportive and protective of me. I feel pride as well.

I am so proud to be a part of something that may soon bring down a policy that forces individuals to remain silent and not publicly confess who they truly are.

I am so blessed to have the staff at SLDN work with me and assist me. They have been my backbone in every phase that I have gone through, from my coming out to my command to my notifying them of the 60 Minutes episode broadcast.

To have people be so devoted to helping you give a voice to thousands of gay and lesbian service members is a feeling that I never thought I would experience.

For more information visit the SLDN website.

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