Within the first three hours that American troops crossed the Iraqi border on March 21, 2003, Marine staff sergeant Eric Alva got out of his Humvee, took two steps, and set foot on a bomb.
There was an explosion. He was awake the entire duration of “whatever time was elapsing.” He felt severe pain. He opened his eyes to see black smoke, sand and dirt clouding around him. He was gripping his right arm and when he looked at his hand, he saw that his index finger was gone. Only after he was transported by a helicopter to the nearest makeshift hospital was he given morphine and treated by a doctor. When he woke up, he took stock of his body: right arm broken; left leg broken; right leg felt broken, too, until Alva could hoist himself up to see that the sheet where his leg should have been was flat.
Eric Alva was the first American soldier to be injured in the Iraq War. While this gained him a purple heart and the overwhelming support from his country, there was something that was holding him back from feeling truly honest with the himself and with public. In 2005, Alva gained the courage to come out as a gay man. Alva came to the College last Wednesday in the Stern Center Ballroom to speak to students and faculty members alike about his experience in the military as well as his role in repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and continuing efforts in gay rights activism.
Upon returning to the United States, Alva went into intensive rehabilitation and occupational therapy to learn how to walk again with his prosthetic leg, how to write again and how to do other everyday activities. Alva fell victim to depression and also developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Through it all, he finally came to a healthy enough state of mind where he felt he could come forward and be honest about who he was.“I contacted the Human Rights Campaign back home in San Antonio, Texas,” Alva said. “I was dumbstruck as to what I was getting myself into.”
Alva was flown to D.C. on Feb. 28 of 2007 to appear on Good Morning America and come out on national television. Alva continued to gain recognition and support for being the first American to be injured in the Iraq war coming forward as a gay man. The news spread quickly just in time of the upcoming election year and Alva became an activist working towards repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
The reactions of the people varied. Most of his fellow Marines that fought alongside of him during the war told Alva, “we always knew, trust us.” Alva even stated how he “served honorably for 13 years, and when I did come out, 99.9% of people were supportive.” But the problems, he found, mostly came from people from older generations.
When President Obama was elected in 2008, he made it a goal to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Alva looked at it as an effort of all people to come together as allies. “We were fighting two wars and firing people that we need on the battlefront,” he said. In Nov. of 2010, although the democrats lost 87 seats in the House, congress went into “lame duck season,” when anyone who loses their seat still works until Dec. 31. Congress voted and successfully repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on Dec. 18, 2010. And on Dec. 22 when President Obama signed the law, “I got to stand right behind him,” Alva said.
Alva claims to have done this for a reason. “Losing my leg–and almost my life–was a life-changing experience,” Alva said. “I had to make sure that the people of this country were free. Everybody deserves the same thing; freedom is not just for the select few.”
Although he joked about not letting anyone dictate what you do, not even your parents, Alva really pushed students to be in control of their own happiness. “It’s your life,” he said, “you’re only promised today. Tomorrow is just a word; it doesn’t exist, ladies and gentlemen.”
Alva, an avid skier and scuba diver with a partner who lives in Atlanta, feels grateful and blessed to be who he is today. His message catered to all students and audience members on Wednesday night. CofC student government Vice President Sean Stivaletta, who attended the event on behalf of the Office of Student Life, said that “after listening to Mr. Alva’s story, all students can walk away feeling like no challenge is insurmountable and that you can accomplish amazing things if you pursue what you believe in.”
Now, Alva continues to build advocacy by updating his city ordinance’s non-discrimination policies on sexuality and veterans’ rights. “I don’t have the full rights that I fought for for this country,” he said. And the next topic is same sex marriage. Alva believes that people need to let people live their lives and be happy, and he won’t rest until he gets there.
“I guess it’s just the Marine in me,” he said.
Keep an eye out for a spotlight of some of CofC’s own veterans in the next issue of The Yard, as well as more on same-sex marriage, to be distributed Nov. 20.