Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Man of war


Eric Alva, who was injured in Iraq, now speaks out against the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Photo: Courtesy Human Rights Campaign
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Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva is on the move. Talking with him by phone from an airport in San Antonio, Texas (also his hometown), he is in the midst of a six-city tour organized by the Human Rights Campaign.

A 13-year veteran, Alva is the new strong voice among many lesbian and gay veterans coming out against the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which has led to the dismissal of thousands of Marines, soldiers, sailors, interpreters, and personnel.

The first American wounded in the war in Iraq, on March 21, 2003, Alva was supervising a Basra convoy with his battalion when he stepped on a landmine, breaking his right arm and damaging his leg, which was later amputated. Alva was awarded a Purple Heart and received a medical discharge from the military.

Awarded the 2003 Heroes and Heritage Award from the United States Marine Corps, Alva was greeted in a hospital bed by President Bush, who, along with (now former) Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, seemed to use Alva for their publicity campaigns at the beginning of the war.

Yet now Alva is turning the recognized heroism back to reflect on the military's anti-gay policies.

When General Peter Pace, the now-fired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of gays in the military, "We should not condone immoral acts," Alva was frequently interviewed defending gay and lesbian military personnel.

Alva called Pace's remarks "shocking and insulting to thousands of men and women who have served in the military."

Effecting change is the new mission for Alva, 36, who, at a diminutive 5 feet 1 inch, has become a big voice in countering the inequities of the military's anti-gay dismissals.

As he speaks at the main stage at Pride events and rides in the parade this Sunday, Alva has a few unusual anniversaries. Ten years ago he was stationed in the Bay Area, at Alameda when it was a military base. Back then, he said he only visited San Francisco a few times, but was too closeted to visit the Castro, and hadn't even met other gay men.

"I was too scared," Alva said. "I knew it was there, but the opportunity never happened."

Now, he's returning as a decorated veteran who's met two presidents, was the first injured in the Iraq War, has a partner, and is now one of the most prominent voices speaking out against DADT.

Other cities he'll visit include Seattle, Orlando, Phoenix, and Palm Springs. First on the tour was a well-timed event in De Moines, Iowa.

"The timing was perfect, because with the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees in town, they have to respond to it," said Alva.

While in the Marines, Alva said, "I had come out to some friends before I was shipped off to Somalia." There, Alva provided convoy security for people transporting food and supplies into early 1993.

"We actually didn't hear about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' for a while," said Alva of his overseas deployment. By 1994, he recalls company meetings where he and other supervisors were being advised about how to follow the policy. Alva had to also come to the realization of how it might affect his job.

Alva had told a few co-workers that he's gay. "It depends on who your close friends are," he explained. "Over a year, six months, it depends on what bond you form with another service member. For me, when I did tell, all it did was bring us together, probably with even more respect."

Later missions included three trips to Japan. But it was his first day in Kuwait in March 2003, the beginning offensive of the Bush administration's "Shock and Awe" campaign, that Alva was injured.

"I was only there for three hours," he said, before a land mine broke his arm and blew up his lower right leg. His painful recovery was layered with the multiple honors and photo opportunities with Bush and others.

Alva, once a distance runner, was walking three months after his leg was amputated and an artificial limb installed.

"It took another three months to learn how to use it, to get the balance," said Alva. "I tried running, but my left leg was also injured, with shrapnel in my foot, causing more pain than in my right leg."

Alva focuses on swimming and scuba diving as part of his exercise, and has gone on diving trips with Dive Pirates (, an organization that helps injured Iraq War vets learn to dive.

He still remains concerned about the war. "It's upsetting to see the results of this four years later," said Alva. "I think we've gone backwards, from the small disruptions of the insurgents to the civil war the Iraqis are involved in. Saddam is gone, but it seems worse than when he was there. I have optimism, but that wears thin. I think most people would be pessimistic because it is a mess. How do we fix it?"

While Alva countered Pace's anti-gay statements, he may agree with Pace, who is said to have disagreed with Bush's "troop surge." Was it that or the anti-gay statements that ended up getting Pace fired?

"I don't think the troop surge was a good idea, but I think it's a mixture of things why [Pace] got fired," said Alva. "It's unbelievable what he said. I think his anti-gay remarks were a factor. You can't go around saying what he did, someone in that kind of leadership role."

Asked if he thinks DADT will be important to the 2008 presidential election, Alva said, "It's going to be a forefront issue. I'm scheduled to work with HRC through the year, but my time with them may last beyond that. It's going to be a hot topic until the elections, what with more Republican and Democratic debates."

Alva said more soldiers who are coming out who have served will prove the point that "it's not what they do in their personal life," Alva said. "To still be this discriminatory, to think that gay men and women aren't respected in this country enough to serve in the military; it can't continue. Some paid that ultimate sacrifice, only to be dishonored."

What about those in the LGBT community, particularly here in San Francisco, who are and always have been against the war? Alva said those people should still fight against discrimination in any aspect of our rights.

"It's a far deeper issue," Alva said. "You have to look at the individuals who served their country who happen to be gay, who put themselves out there and are willing to fight and die for our country."

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