The first Marine injured in the Iraq War, who came out in 2007 and advocated for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” urged students to fight complacency.
Staff Sergeant Eric Alva ended his speech by showing the audience his prosthetic leg. It has Bluetooth, he said. The Bluetooth connection gives Alva greater control over his leg. For instance, he can set his stride depending on whether he’s walking leisurely or climbing stairs.
He lost his right leg due to a land mine three hours after entering Iraq in March 2003. Alva also lost his right index finger and sustained nerve damage in his right hand. While the loss of a finger might seem small compared to the loss of a leg, Alva told the audience he can no longer pinch with his right hand, an action we thoughtlessly perform countless times every hour.
Alva was the first American injured in the Iraq War. In 2007, he publicly came out and advocated against “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a 1993 law banning openly gay individuals from serving in the U.S. military. He stood behind President Barack Obama when he signed its repeal in 2010.
He delivered the keynote speech for “Community Means Everyone Week,” an LGBTQ+ Support Services initiative, on Nov. 13 in Sears Auditorium.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell was a law that forced people to go to work every day, like myself, who were LGBT and lie about who they were,” Alva said in an interview with Flyer News.
He enlisted in the Marines in 1990, before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” when LGBT individuals, open or not, were barred from serving in the military. Alva, who already had come out to some friends in high school, lied when asked about his sexual orientation by the recruiter.
Despite the 1993 law requiring service members not to ask about an individual’s sexual orientation, some of Alva’s fellow Marines inevitably did. The question was usually preceded by a comment about Alva attending military balls alone or regarding his ownership of the movies “Beaches” and “Terms of Endearment.”
Alva said when he would come out, they’d react by either saying they already knew or the disclosure would bring them closer.
“I broke that law [don’t ask, don’t tell] too many times that I can’t even remember,” Alva said.
But he noted every service member he told also broke the law by not reporting him. Alva said he believes he wasn’t reported because he was “a good Marine.”
His decision to come out nationally in 2007 was not made lightly. Prior to doing so, he got the support of his family.
Alva’s mother, who was worried when her 5’1’’, 102-pound 19-year-old son enlisted in the Marines in 1990, was apprehensive about his decision to come out publicly, but she still supported him.
In the interview, Alva said his mother, an elementary school teacher, told him a coworker said, in a way that implied disapproval, she would pray for him. His mother retorted she would pray for her colleague.
Following his public coming out, Alva also said his twin sister called him crying after an internet commenter wrote: “Too bad he didn’t get his head blown off with his leg.”
“It [coming out] was a sacrifice, but it was a sacrifice on my family’s part too,” Alva said.
Alva’s struggles were not limited to his injury in the Marines or coming out. After 13 years in service, at the age of 34, he went to college. He said going back to school was difficult.
“After you experience the military…the transition is always a little uneasy,” Alva said.
As a nontraditional student, he felt anger toward younger students who seemed to “take life for granted” and who, from Alva’s perspective, were ambivalent to the fact that the U.S. was fighting two wars. When students would talk over a professor, Alva, who lived an extremely disciplined lifestyle for more than a decade, became even more infuriated.
Today, Alva teaches social work at The University of Texas at San Antonio.
At the end of his speech, Alva – who is Hispanic, Native American, disabled, a veteran, gay and suffers from PTSD – encouraged the audience to not let prejudices impact their perception of others.
“Don’t let labels and titles identify someone,” he said.
As an example, Alva noted some of his LGBT friends support President Donald Trump.
Alva continues to advocate on behalf of LGBT and veteran causes. He’s spoken against Trump’s ban on transgender people from serving in the military. Alva also is working to retroactively change the discharge terminology of LGBT individuals who were removed from military service prior to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
He urged the young people in the audience to support the rights of everyone, even if it doesn’t directly affect them, and that we cannot be complacent.
Alva said his decision to come out was grounded in the oath he took to become a Marine, when he swore to treat everyone equally. Through his activism, it’s clear he continues to live out that oath to this day.