Serving honorably

Gay veteran says 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', past mistakes need fixing

RALEIGH, N.C. – It’s a cold, windy day in the state’s capital. I’m bundled up in a heavy coat, my face red and chapped from walking around a breezy downtown. I’m still warming up as Marine Corps veteran Eric Alva, donned in a polo T-shirt and shorts, strolls over and imparts a warm and welcoming hello.

Injured in Iraq in 2003, gay veteran Eric Alva now speaks on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign and their efforts to repeal Dont Ask, Dont Tell.

Injured in Iraq in 2003, gay veteran Eric Alva now speaks on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign and their efforts to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

Alva is the sort of person of which I’ve always thought highly – several members of my family today, and stretching back to the Revolutionary War, have served in our nation’s military. My cousin, a U.S. Army reservist, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.

A decorated Marine, Alva served in our nation’s military for 13 years. He still keeps his hair cropped short, and it’s hard to miss the prosthetic leg he wears. As we begin chatting in the hotel’s coffee shop, another veteran walks in. Alva immediately recognizes him.

“On his belt buckle, there’s the eagle, globe and anchor,” Alva tells me. “He used to be a drill instructor. He’s wearing a cartridge belt. Drill instructors wore those when they trained.”

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The older gentleman, turning to leave, sees Alva.

“Semper Fi,” Alva says to the man.

“Semper Fi, devil dog,” he replies. “How many years?”

“Thirteen.”

“Twenty-seven,” the man says.

They speak only briefly, but the respect they have for each other fills the air.

Alva, the first seriously wounded marine in Operation Iraqi Freedom, is known nowadays for his work with the Human Rights Campaign. Since coming out publicly in 2007, he’s spoken out against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, a federal law passed in 1993 prohibiting the open and honest military service of lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans. In February, he joined Clay Aiken, Meredith Baxter and Joe Solmonese as a speaker at the Human Rights Campaign’s Carolinas Gala, and a day before joined local activists for a DADT rally in Charlotte.

During his time in service, Alva says he worked openly with close friends and fellow Marines. As early as 1993, as DADT was being debated and passed in Congress, he began slowly opening up and telling others he was gay. The admission, he says, made no difference in his personal or working relationships.

“One or two them said they had an idea,” he says, “but all of them said they didn’t have a problem with it. It made us closer as buddies. People would say, ‘You’re cool. I like you. I don’t care what you are. Damn, you’re still a good Marine. You’re alright with me, Alva.’”

And, to this day, Alva remains close to many of his fellow marines. In fact, he’s godfather to three of his old friends’ children.

In January 2003, Alva had earned a rank of staff sergeant and headed to Kuwait to enter Operation Iraqi Freedom. Soon after the start of war, Alva found himself in a life-threatening position. A roadside bomb destroyed the vehicle he was traveling in, and nearly took his life. He came home a hero, received a Purple Heart and is a living, breathing example of the honorable, life-and-death service gay men and women perform for the nation and its citizens.

“I lost my leg,” he says. “Nothing will ever bring back my leg. That is a hard test of strength for a person’s life. I sometimes think, ‘Wow, I don’t know how I did it.”

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Alva says life is precious, and those men and women willing to lay down their lives for freedom and safety should be honored. American leaders like Sen. John McCain, who has spoken out against a DADT repeal, should understand the sacrifice LGB people have made for their country.

“McCain is an idiot,” he asserts. “For McCain, who spent six-and-a-half years in a P.O.W camp – six-and-a-half years – you would think someone like that would come home and think, ‘I know what it is like to be treated wrongly, and even tortured.’ To come home and still have reservations about someone else? He doesn’t give us a chance. He doesn’t get it. Why would you have any reservations about treating people with oppression?”

Alva is hopeful a DADT repeal will come sooner rather than later. He also believes the government owes much to those who received dishonorable discharges – either under DADT or prior policies banning LGB service – and lost much-needed veteran benefits and medical care.

“A bill needs to be authored and we need to go back and fix the mistakes,” he says. “We should take care of people in this country. Why else do we go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan?”

Until the day comes when DADT is history, Alva says he’ll keep fighting to see justice done although he won’t be running for office.

“I’d rather stay in the grassroots and be the activist I am,” he says. “I think I’m able to fire people up.”

He adds, laughing, “And, it gives me the chance to call people like McCain an idiot and curse still.”

This web exclusive appears online with the March 6-March 19 print edition.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.