There’s a framed letter in the Manzella home that’s not the kind of keepsake they normally would display.
Their Chautauqua County farmhouse, sunny and tidy, is filled with personal mementos – photographs of their three sons, a flag that was flown in Afghanistan, a white calla lily in a square glass vase from when their son, Darren, was married last summer, seven weeks before he died.
But the letter, neatly matted under glass, is from the White House. It was Darren’s husband, Javier, who suggested that the Manzellas get it framed.
After everything – Darren’s military discharge for failing to keep mum about his sexual orientation, the testimony he gave to Congress – the letter is a testament to just how wide an impact he left.
“Our nation,” the president wrote, “is forever grateful for Darren’s service.”
To the world, Darren Manzella was the combat medic from the Town of Portland whose work to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” began with a 2007 appearance on “60 Minutes” in which he helped reveal that the military was selectively enforcing the outdated policy. He had told his superiors he was gay yet still continued to serve.
To his parents, he was the boy who would horse around with his two brothers on their rolling Chautauqua County vineyard when they were supposed to be working on the grapes. He was the kindergartner who hesitated to get on the bus his first day but then never looked back after his dad scooped him up and placed him on the first step. He was the middle son who kept them roaring at the dinner table with his wit, who could persuade his cousin to eat green construction paper and who wasn’t afraid to join either the high school cheerleading team or the Army.
Yet, there was another side to Darren, who at 36 was struck and killed last summer as he pushed his disabled car to the side of the highway.
To veterans suffering silently on the other end of the phone, Darren was a lifeline, a fellow veteran who could listen to their troubles and offer an empathetic ear as a counselor at a veterans crisis call center.
After his death, Darren’s parents, Mike and Nancy, heard from people across the country who said they were helped by his work on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and on the crisis line.
Those who knew Darren believe that his efforts to change the world had just begun. Saturday, they will pick up where he left off, raising money to help Chautauqua County veterans in crisis during the inaugural Darren Manzella-Lapeira Memorial Run. Registration for the race will start at 8 a.m. at J.W. Dill Post 434, American Legion, in Brocton.
The honors haven’t stopped either. Brocton Central School will induct him into its Hall of Fame this fall.
“We’re very proud of what he did in his life,” Nancy Manzella said. “But I think we’re mostly proud of the person he was.”
There was a time when the country’s military turned its back on Darren. He did not turn his back on military service. After the flawed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed, he joined the New York Army National Guard and served as a staff sergeant.
“His legacy,” the letter from the president reads, “will live on in the hearts and minds he helped to open and the countless lives he touched.”
There’s a lesson in Darren’s life for all of us. Compassion and courage can sometimes be the most difficult path. But they also leave the greatest legacy.