by Jessica Carreras
Eric Alva didn’t know he was a hero.
Sure, the retired Marine had spent 13 years serving his country. He had lost his leg in battle as the first American wounded in the Iraq war in 2003. He received a Purple Heart, the Heroes Among Us award and had met President George W. Bush. He was even on “Oprah.”
But it wasn’t until he came out to the Human Rights Campaign and asked them one simple question – “How can I help?” – that Alva became LGBT America’s No. 1 champion in support of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The Marine-turned-advocate – who spent much of his adult life hiding his identity as a gay man – will be speaking at Eastern Michigan University’s Quirk Theatre at 7 p.m. April 7 about his journey into activism and why DADT has to go.
Though the 38-year-old Alva now speaks out against the 1993 military policy that has since required gay and lesbian service members to keep their sexual orientation hidden, when he joined the Marines, the law didn’t even exist.
Instead, says Alva, things were much worse for a gay prospective cadet. “I had to go through the questions on the application where it asks if you’ve ever had sexual relations with someone of the same sex,” he recalls. “Of course, that was pretty stressful and nerve-wracking because I already knew I was gay.”
Alva, a San Antonio, Texas, native who comes from a long line of military descendents, always knew he wanted to join the Marines – even if that meant he could never reveal his true self.
However, he says that after joining, being gay wasn’t an issue.
“I was so concentrated on being a good Marine that I never really thought about my sexual orientation other than the fact that yeah, I noticed that people were attractive,” he says. “But I never became unprofessional or harassed anyone or made innuendos or anything. I was as professional as could be.”
It was a comfortable enough lie to live with – until 1992 when talks of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” began. For the first time ever, gays and lesbians stood poised to serve – as long as they didn’t talk about their sexual orientation.
Alva described the mood in the service as hostile. “A lot of the people in the military weren’t happy about it,” he shares. “They were saying all these kinds of terrible things, like, ‘We should use them for target practice.’ It was stressful because now you’re in this group of all your friends or platoon or squad, and if you don’t say anything, it makes you seem suspicious.
“I can’t even begin to explain what the pressure was like.”
But again, after passage of the law by then-President Bill Clinton, sexuality died down as a military issue. For Alva, it wouldn’t come into play again until his service was done.
Alva had hoped to make Marines his career, but his plans were cut short on March 21, 2003 when he stepped on a land mine in Iraq, breaking his right arm and injuring his right leg so badly that it had to be amputated.
But as he struggled through physical therapy, Alva began a new chapter of his life – as an American hero.
Alva was the first U.S. military service member to be injured in the Iraq war. He appeared in People magazine, on “Oprah” and was a familiar face on local and national television stations. He met then-President George W. Bush and several members of Congress. He received both the prestigious Purple Heart medal and was honored in New York City with the Heroes Among Us award, presented to everyday Americans doing extraordinary things.
So when Alva called the Human Rights Campaign in 2006 from the San Antonio home he shares with his partner, Darrell, to ask how he could help, they were more than a little excited.
“I was thinking I would work at a booth signing people up and handing out T-shirts,” he says, laughing. “(HRC) had bigger plans for me, and I really didn’t know until December of 2006 when they flew me out (to their D.C. headquarters) to give me a tour of their building and they pretty much laid it on the line.”
Since then, Alva has been present in Congress during DADT hearings, spoken out publicly at rallies and marches and even served as the Grand Marshall to the 2008 Chicago Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. He has worked as a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign on the issue, as well as helped the Servicememebers Legal Defense Network and Stonewall Democrats, and spoken at a Log Cabin Republicans convention. He routinely visits colleges and gives public talks on DADT. This summer, he will also speak at the Kalamazoo Pride festival in West Michigan.
His experiences, he says, have taught him a lot about why DADT has been so difficult to defeat.
Despite to an outpouring of support and polls in favor of the repeal, the plan has also faced much opposition from military members, who have made arguments that allowing gays to serve openly would cause civil disobedience, a break in unit cohesion and even the possible loss of the current wars.
“If we implement change at this time, allowing gay service members to serve openly, then what happens – and this is hypothetically speaking – then we lose Afghanistan and Iraq,” Alva explains. “I think that what Gen. (John) Sheehan (who testified against the repeal) and others think is that allowing gays to serve openly, that means here comes all the rainbow flags, here comes all the leather. People really fail to see the stupidity of that.”
Alva sees things quite differently. Out of all the people he served with, he can recall only one who voiced disapproval after he came out. “All these people were calling me. I was getting e-mails, I was getting all this support from people I had actually served with,” he says. “These are hardcore Marines who were saying ‘I would go to war with Eric anytime.'”
And although Alva will never have that chance again, he’s fighting a different war now – one where the goal is to ensure that young service members never have to experience the stresses that he endured in the Marines.
By some estimates, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is over a year away. But things are beginning to change. Some of the highest military and political leaders in the U.S. have come out in support of the repeal. The bill now has almost 200 sponsors in the House of Representatives, and just last week, the Pentagon announced measure to relax discharge under the policy.
Alva, for one, is hopeful. “There’s still going to be some obstacles and rough waters ahead to get this done, but I think we’re headed in the right direction,” he insists. “I mean, we have to. We have to start letting people have the full independence this country was based on and stop discriminating. And that’s why I had to speak out.”