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photo courtesy HRC

Eric Alva, Marine

by Denny Meyer

Eric Alva always wanted to be a Marine, and he did not let being gay get in his way.  His grandfather had served in World War II and Korea, and his father served in Vietnam; Eric joined the Marines at age 19 and served for thirteen dedicated honorable years, becoming a Staff Sergeant.  He served in Somalia, Japan, and Iraq.  His decorations include a Purple Heart,  a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation, five Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medals, a  Joint Meritorious Unit Citation, A Presidential Unit Citation, and a Combat Action Ribbon, among others.

During a logistic convoy in Iraq, in 2003, he stepped on a land mine and lost his leg.  This gave him the unenviable distinction of being the first American wounded in the war in Iraq.  At Walter Reed Medical Center, he was personally visited by President and Mrs. Bush who, as he put it, came to respectfully and sincerely pay homage to his service and sacrifice.  He was medically retired from the Marines in June of 2004.

Two weeks ago, on February 28th, 2007, he stood with U.S. House Representative Marty Meehan and Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese as they announced the reintroduction of The Military Readiness Enhancement Act which would repeal the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy and allow open homosexual service in our armed forces.

photo courtesy HRC

SSGT Alva described his career in the Marines as a huge sacrifice but one he very intentionally chose.  "You must want to make it, its huge, but you choose to sacrifice freedom to serve this country," he said.  I asked him repeatedly what it had been like being a gay Marine.  His answers were consistently about his focus on becoming and being a Marine; his priority from the start was first in passing the physical, getting through boot camp, concentrating always on his career and the dignity, discipline and respect of being a Marine.  He described himself as a stern NCO and platoon leader who held his troops to a high standard where degrading others with the usual jokes and insults was unthinkable.  When he confided that he was gay to some peers, he never once feared being outed.  As I understood him, he was so highly respected by his subordinates and colleagues as a gung-ho kick-ass Marine brother that no one dared dream of accusing him of dishonor.  Indeed, he has heard from some of his former Marine commanding officers who have personally contacted him to express their support for what he is now doing in working with HRC as a national spokesperson demanding that gay and lesbian volunteers be given the opportunity to serve.

For many in the gay community, including those who are veterans of a few years of service, and in the general population, it is difficult to comprehend why someone gay would be willing to put aside their private life and sacrifice the freedom of his or her best years for a life in the military.  Those of us who have had military careers can understand the motivation that kept us going.  Describing what drove us to do it is another matter.

In an internet interview last week, I asked openly gay Australian Navy Chief Petty Officer Stuart O'Brian, who is currently serving in Iraq, to explain in his own words why a gay person would devote his life to military service.

Insightfully, he said, "Why does a straight man do it, and why the difference?  To me, people join the military to serve their country because it's something they believe in.  We all hide things - sometimes it's who we are, or where we come from - but at the end of the day - to serve can be one of the most rewarding things... . We all join the service for different reasons but we become one family regardless of our background or sexuality"

To gain insight into why someone, gay or straight, would take on the ultimate challenge of becoming a Marine, I asked openly gay retired Marine Colonel Hank Thomas, who served in combat in Vietnam; who said, "I was looking for a career that would place me amongst what others would view as one of the finest organizations in the world; with people who have an extremely high level of honesty and integrity and who truly work together and live together as a team.  It just so happened that all or many of these qualities come together in the United States Marine Corps.  It is something that is sometimes referred to as a band of brothers. The Marines also place a strong emphasis on individual performance, both physical and mental.  To accomplish all these qualities, which make it an elite organization, if you meet these criteria and are accepted as part of it, it would place you in what many would say a step apart from the rest of society.  The point being that to be able to meet the challenge and be accepted into the Marine Corps and to be successful within the Marine Corps has no bearing on whether you are gay or not, except that you know that if others find out that you are gay, you will be dismissed.  So you are forced to live with that sword hanging over your head at all times, which has nothing to do with meeting all the criteria.  It is the ultimate challenge."

That may help to explain the sense I got that SSGT Alva is exceptional in his square-jawed determination, both to have been a Marine, and now to be an openly gay spokesman for the right to serve.  He said, "I am in a unique position to stand up for rights; I sacrificed for this country and I have a point to make."  Loosing a leg changed his life, he said.  To give some meaning to that and to being the first American to have been injured in Iraq, he now wants gay and lesbian service members to have the opportunity "to be judged for what we do."  Noting similar discrimination that other minorities who were integrated into the armed forces suffered, he said that the fears about the effect upon unit cohesion were proven to be unfounded once people are given the opportunity to serve.  "We have the best military in the world; all men and women should be given the chance to serve for who they are.  The transformation may be difficult when it happens," he said, "but it will happen."

He is currently studying to become a social worker.  His new mission in life, he said, is to advocate for social justice.  Eric Alva was an outstanding Marine.  There is little doubt that he will be an outstanding advocate for the right to serve.  He could have been one hell of a recruiter for the Marines; and, perhaps some day soon, he still could be when all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, have the right to choose to volunteer to serve their country.

photo courtesy HRC